A Written History of HIAS

It all started with a HIAS Board meeting resolution in 1983 that deemed a written history of HIAS and its involvement in the history of Jewish migration ‘appropriate’ and by all means necessary.

By 1984, the Executive Committee approved several thousand dollars in funds from the Liskin Family Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation in order to fund the project.

“Such a volume would,” according to HIAS President Emeritus Edwin Shapiro in a letter to the Board, “by virtue of HIAS’ historic and integral role in aiding Jewish migrants, highlight the work of our organization.” Mr. Shapiro goes on to applaud the Liskin family’s generosity by noting “and the fact that HIAS was the organization closest to Ida Liskin’s heart, stems to a great extent, from the fact that Mrs. Liskin never forgot that it was a HIAS representative who met her at the docks when she arrived in the U.S. as a bewildered, 18-year-old girl.”

Ida Liskin, that very same bewildered girl, later went on to become a notable member of the HIAS Women’s Division and remained a close and long-term friend of HIAS. She made sure to bequeath money to HIAS in her will.

Soon after funding was legally secured, HIAS organized a Book Committee to coordinate the publication details and chose Ronald Sanders, noted Jewish history author and historian as the author of the forthcoming tome.

The Book Committee unanimously agreed that “The purpose of the book would be to educate, promote HIAS’ identity, attract membership, attract potential leadership, attract bequests. The book should primarily be addressed to the Jewish community, students, (high-school, undergraduate, post-graduate), as well as to the general public, scholars, and practitioners.”

What a wish list!

Visas to Freedom by  Mark Wischnitzeranother written history of HIAS, only spanned the organization’s history from its beginning up until 1954. The Book Committee’s official opinion was that although it was a useful reference book, it was “dry and rather uninteresting.” (We are still looking for documentation to see HOW happy HIAS was with Sanders’ final publication…)

Wischnitzer’s book and Sanders’ book Shores of refuge: A hundred years of Jewish emigration, are both available to request and read in the Center for Jewish History’s Lillian Goldman Reading Room.

Let us know which one you enjoy more!

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Whom Has HIAS Helped?

The work of an immigrant aid organization is multi-faceted. We’ve written a little in the past few months about HIAS’ Government Relations department in the 1980s and 1990s and their work with legislators to maintain government funding for refugee resettlement in the United States, and to make sure everyone on staff at HIAS was aware of continual changes to the immigration laws

HIAS maintained offices in countries around the world where they helped refugees, often while in transit with visas and other documentation. HIAS overseas staff hustled to find countries that were accepting Jewish refugees for 10 years or more after World War II opening offices in Tunis, Morocco, Athens, Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, Quito, and elsewhere as needed, for as long as was needed. In countries where they were not able to open an office, for financial or more often political reasons, they worked through other agencies and local groups.

And of course HIAS issued regular reports summarizing their works. We’ve mentioned in previous posts how useful the annual reports are as quick reference to annual summaries. There were also a compilation called “Statistical Abstract”, issued by various departments through the decades, often quarterly. A quick glance at some of the information in these statistical abstract reports gives us an interesting comparison with immigration today. Below are pages from an issue of “Statistical Abstract” from 1960, then issued by the Division of Research and Statistics headed by Ilya Dijour, from a few years after it began publication:

Statistical Abstract, first quarter of 1960 – cover
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page 3
Page 4
Page 5

At a later date, with enough funding, the full run should be digitized; it’s a great resource.

 

Secretary’s Handbook, 1960

In June 1960, the HIAS Office of the Comptroller issued a handbook for the many secretaries working at HIAS. In the days before copy machines, and computers on every desk, there were many secretaries – working for  professional staff, other departmental staff, and in a secretarial pool – all typing letters, telegrams and cables, transcribing recorded correspondence from a Dictaphone, updating lists, adding to and sending case records, and, according to the Introduction, facing “special problems”, which were to be discussed with the Office Manager.

Secretary’s Handbook – Cover, June 1960

The copy above, found in a box of unrelated documents that had been pulled from their respective series and not refiled, belonged to Lorraine Stein (note her name handwritten on the cover). According to the dates we’ve compiled for HIAS staff in the second half of the 20th century, Lorraine Stein was the Executive Secretary to Executive Vice-President James Rice as early as 1964, and 30 years later was the Executive Coordinator – responsible for the efficient running of the Executive Office.

It is likely that secretaries were continually being hired and trained as others moved on from HIAS. The handbook was created primarily for these new employees, making training easier and quicker. The Introduction explains,

The primary purpose of this Handbook is to achieve uniformity throughout the Agency and to summarize for you what is considered good office practice in United HIAS Service.

And it goes on to say,

… this Handbook was prepared with the NEW employee in mind.

The handbook is 57 pages long, including an Introduction, Table of Contents and Index. Even so, the Introduction explains,

This Handbook does not pretend to cover all areas of a secretary’s duties. There are a number of other reference books which you may wish to consult, some of which are listed in the Bibliography section …

58 years later, the handbook serves another purpose; it provides a detailed description of the departments within the building, a snapshot of HIAS in 1960. And it explains things like the difference between a telegram and a cable (in “Take a Wire” on page 39):

“Take a Wire”

Under “File This Copy” beginning on page 41, there is information about how and why the documents that are becoming part of the HIAS archives were indexed and filed as they were.

“File This Copy”

For several decades beyond the 1960s, we have found the indexing on many of the documents most helpful in tracking subject headings and terminology HIAS used as it evolved. The secretarial presence lasted through the early 1980s, when, as happened in offices everywhere as more systems were automated, the large support staff that had kept the files in perfect order became smaller and the filing system broke down. Our challenge in processing the more recent parts of the collection – late 1980s through the 2000s – is to try to recreate how the files were arranged and housed in filing cabinets, and to maintain that order within the archives.

A copy of the handbook can be found in Box 0048 – in the Executive series, the files of Harry M. Friedman, whose department issued the handbook. Friedman was the Comptroller, Financial Vice-President and Assistant Secretary (to the Board of Directors) from before 1960 until his retirement in 1981.

Brothers Reunited After a Lifetime Apart

On Sunday, February 6, 1983, brothers Zyama Volfson (80) and Samuel Wolfe (somewhere between 86 and 88) were reunited at Miami International Airport for the first time in over 70 years. They had not seen each other since Samuel Wolfe had left Bobruisk, Russia (now in Belarus) at the age of 16, when his brother was still a young child. This was in either 1911 or 1913, according to different sources. When he arrived in the United States, Samuel “Americanized” his name to Wolfe. He worked in various construction jobs, at breweries, restaurants, stockyards, factories, coal mines, and as a door-to-door salesman all around the eastern and mid-western parts of the country before settling in Chicago as a taxi driver in the 1920’s.

 

 

Zyama stayed in Russia, through World Wars I and II, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of Communism, until his wife died in 1980. He then decided to emigrate to the United States with his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. After settling in Brooklyn in 1981, Volfson decided to seek out his brother, knowing only that he lived near Chicago. He sought help from the New York office of HIAS, which helped put Volfson in touch with the Chicago office of HIAS. The Chicago office placed an ad in the Sentinel, an English-language Jewish newspaper in Chicago, in December 1982.

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Wolfe’s daughter, Hodele Markowitz, saw the ad and contacted her father, who by then was spending most of his time in Miami Beach, Florida. Markowitz set up a brief telephone call between the brothers, after which she planned an in-person reunion. Zyama Volfson flew to Miami with his daughter-in-law, Lyudmila, to meet his brother, with whom he had lost touch 70 years before.

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Photo from the Chicago Sun-Times, February 7, 1983. Samuel Wolfe is holding red carnations from his brother.

The charming story caught the attention of various newspapers in New York and Chicago, as well as several local morning television news programs. HIAS’ Chicago and New York offices also received their share of publicity, particularly from individuals looking to make their own family connections.

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Always Factual, Often Dazzling: HIAS Annual Reports

Each year, HIAS Executive Board members as well as members of various Committees and Sub-Committees convene to discuss the year’s financial status, track contributions to their cultural missions, resolve issues, and plan for the year(s) ahead in the form of Annual Meetings. Although these meetings may not seem that exciting from the outside, they serve as valuable roundtables for discussion, decision-making, and organizational networking.

Every year, just in time of the Annual Meeting, HIAS releases their Annual Report. These publications serve as handy take-aways, highlighting many of the topics discussed at the Annual Meeting as well as other entertaining articles and interviews.

Throughout our processing, we’ve had the pleasure of coming across many of HIAS’ Annual Reports and marveled at the impressive, creative art styles that were chosen to represent one year or another.

Below, we’ve selected some of our favorites. Please enjoy the artistic inventiveness of HIAS throughout the years!

Which year is your favorite? Let us know in the Comments section below!
Images can be enlarged by clicking on them.