From Tunisia, with Love

HIAS was truly an “international organization” in the sense of intrigue that the phrase suggests. Well…not really…but working in foreign countries with their particular laws and customs could put an international aid worker in a compromising position.

Such was the position in which Al Goldstein, director of operations in Tunisia, found himself when he tried to do a friend a favor. We came across records of his plight in the files of James P. Rice, Executive Vice President of United HIAS Service from 1956 to 1966.

The Jewish population in Tunisia had been in a steady decline since the events leading up to independence from France in 1954, and by 1964, the Jewish population of Tunisia had declined by 92%.[1]

Mostly this decline was caused by unemployment, but by the time of the Bizerte Crisis, in 1961, President Bourguiba’s increasing rapprochement with the Arab League nations and burgeoning anti-Israel sentiment caused many Tunisian Jews to worry about their future in Tunisia. Antisemitism, which had been largely absent in Tunisia (especially in government), became a more frequent occurrence.[2]

But the biggest threat to Jewish life in Tunisia was the economy. The lingering economic toll of the struggle for independence, the departure of many middle-class French Tunisians after independence, along with increasing government regulation and control of the economy threatened the stability of the merchant class of Tunisia, “in which Jews were heavily represented.”[3,4]

It was in such a context that Alphonse Fall, a Tunisian publisher and printer, decided to sell his business at a great loss and expatriate to Marseilles. But in order to get his money out of the country, his brother, Joseph Fall, head of the Caisse Israélite de Relèvement Economique loan kassa[5] in Tunisia, needed someone with access to foreign accounts to, in a sense, ‘launder’ 3,000 dinars (about $7,500).

Enter Albert Goldstein, colleague of Joseph Fall. As can be seen from the timeline below, Goldstein agreed to the transaction, which he said was pretty routine among Tunisians for getting money past the tight restrictions on currency exchange.

Goldstein had returned from Marseille, where he had made the transaction with Alphonse Fall, when he was arrested on December 19th, 1963, by a “special brigade of the economic police.”

Goldstein was released on January 17, 1964, and had to pay a fine in the amount he transferred and repay HIAS for the legal fees incurred. Needless to say, Goldstein was fired soon after.

It’s not clear from the records what became of Joseph Fall. We know that he was treated much worse by the customs authorities than Goldstein. But the date of his release, his punishment, and what he went on to do is still a mystery.

It’s no Midnight Express, but the travails of Al Goldstein are a reminder of the precarious position of HIAS officers in North Africa at a time of shifting identities and loyalties.

Finally, in the spirit of fairness, we give Goldstein the last word. Here is his own narrative of the events and motivations that got him incarcerated.


[5] Loan kassas are free loan societies created by the Joint Distribution Committee.


Old Office Document Formats from the HIAS Archive

Since beginning the project two months ago, we’ve already run across some interesting formats from the 1950s, formats that were once common in office settings and now seem quaint. We’ll start with a random (way overstuffed) folder from HIAS’s executive office.

Overstuffed Folder

You can see how the pressure from the documents packed too tight has caused many of the documents to curl around the others. These documents are usually on very cheap paper, so overstuffed folders can lead to different preservation issues depending on the format of the document in question.

Curled Paper

Onionskin is a kind of paper we find a lot in records from the 1950s. It is very thin, lightweight, and translucent, making it a good stock for carbon copies, permanent filing, and airmail–helping businesses save money on storage space, postage, and copy typists. You can see in the photo below how thin this paper really is.

Onionskin See Through

The issue we find is that it’s very easy for onionskin paper to get mashed up by the thicker paper around it. Here’s an example of some onionskin that has been crushed up against a box for decades. Notice how the acids in the box’s cardboard have browned the ends of the sheet.

Crumpled Onionskin

Luckily, onionskin is pretty durable. It has a high content of cotton fibers, making it strong and flexible as well as containing little-to-no acidic lignin, which causes most paper from this era to yellow and crumble. At the same time, this durable paper holds a crease very well. If a sheet of onionskin falls down in the back of a slumping folder, you get something like this:

Crumpled Blue Onionskin

However durable, it’s still an incredibly thin stock, leading to some easy tears. Back before photocopiers and desktop printers, a lot of hard labor was saved with the help of scotch tape. Unfortunately, the glue in scotch tape is not particularly stable and the adhesive is often very acidic, eating its way from the back . . .

Taped Back

. . . to the front.

Taped Front

After sixty years, though, most of the adhesive has dried and the tape itself is so desiccated that it peels right off without a problem, though that’s not always the case, as seen in the photo below.

Pages Stuck

Old, acidic, wood-pulp-based paper slowly disintegrates over the decades until it is brown and very brittle.

Brittled Paper

Here you can see how easily brittle paper cracks . . .

Embrittled Paper Edge

. . . and flakes off.

Cracking Brittle Paper

There are also reproduction formats particular to this time. Thermofax was a photocopy technology introduced by 3M in 1950. The process used infrared light, which was absorbed by the black ink of the original document, heating it up, and that heat would then transfer to the special heat-sensitive paper, resulting in something like the document you see below.

Thermofax Front

The problem with Thermofax is its tendency to darken over time, due to the heat-sensitive leuco dye embedded in the paper. Over time, the dye continues to develop and is often corrosive to surrounding documents as well as the copy itself, which becomes brittle over time. You can see here how much this document has lost contrast (though, it’s difficult to say whether this is solely the work of the passage of time or of the very inexact and temperamental Thermofax process).

Thermafax closeup

And the final uniquely mid-century format we’ve run into (so far!) is Agfa Copyrapid. Introduced in 1949, Copyrapid is based on a process called diffusion transfer reversal, which is very similar to silver-halide-based black-and-white photography (in fact, the diffusion transfer reversal process was key to inventing instant cameras such as the Kodak Land Camera).

Copyrapid back

Instead of projecting light through a transparent negative onto light-sensitive paper to create a positive image (much like traditional black-and-white photography), Copyrapid uses a special negative transparency that is exposed to light reflected off the original document. The image on the negative is then physically transferred to a special sheet of copy paper by pressing them together. The transferred image shows up as a positive image.

Copyrapid Front

Don’t ask us how it works. For all we know, it’s just mid-century magic. Hopefully, we’ll keep running into interesting obsolete formats and posting them here, and rest assured we will continue to do our best to flatten curled and crinkled documents, capture fading text, and give the documents a better chance at surviving intact for the foreseeable future.