Natan Wekselbaum, co-founder of Gracious Home, helped from Cuba to New York by HIAS

The HIAS archives project team has been working on completing the documentation that will make list and describe the collection. We are on schedule to complete the project before the end of 2018. We haven’t been posting often because of our deadline, but couldn’t resist posting this.

Yesterday I read an obituary for Natan Wekselbaum, who started the wonderful store Gracious Home in New York City. First a hardware store, but eventually a luxurious housewares store, the business was incredibly successful. And still is, although the family no longer owns it.

The obituary can be found here.

Natan’s son Charles said this about his father at his funeral,

One thing he told me on various occasions was that throughout his life he often felt like something of an outsider … In Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, he was called a Jewish person; in Havana, a campesino; and in New York, a Puerto Rican,” he said. “I like to think that the lesson that he took away from this feeling, and carried with him, was that the most important thing is to be yourself, to embrace the uniqueness of character of one’s self and of those around you, and to treat everybody well and with respect no matter where they come from.”

Reading further in his obituary I suspected that HIAS may have been involved with his immigration into the United States. This is what I read, a not uncommon story from among HIAS clients:

His father had left Soviet Russia around 1920 because of anti-Semitism and planned to settle in the United States. But, apparently told that the American government was wary of Communist infiltration and that he would have to go to a nearby country first, he landed in Cuba, liked it, began working as a peddler there and remained.

Natan Wekselbaum graduated from the University of Havana, where he majored in business and accounting and joined the family business importing and distributing cosmetics, health and beauty supplies, stationery and hardware.

When Fidel Castro seized power, the family business faltered, and Mr. Wekselbaum, at 27, left for the United States in 1961 with his wife and infant son. He was the last of his siblings to leave. His parents followed several years later.

Were Natan and his family helped by HIAS?

Because many of the thousands of clients helped by HIAS in the second half of the 20th century are listed in the database that was part of our HIAS archives project, it’s easy to check to see if someone’s name is listed. Feel free to follow the link and search on your own relatives or friends who immigrated to the United States between about 1950 and 2000. Perhaps HIAS helped them as well.


Immigration in 1989, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s post on the difficulties encountered by Soviet Jews requesting refugee status in the US in 1988 and 1989, as detailed in the HIAS Annual Report of 1989 .

Rejection of refugee status in 1988 and 1989 was thought by some to be related “to the continuing US budget crisis which refugee immigration and resettlement costs were exacerbating”, according to the Annual Report (page 10). Here is how the problem developed and how HIAS worked to overcome the hurdles it presented:

“All Soviet Jews historically had been admitted as refugees based on conditions inside the Soviet Union that were universally understood as adverse to Jews.” According to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1989, the term ‘refugee’ means any person who is outside their country of citizenship and needs the protection of another country, such as the United States, “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality,” among other protected groups.

Attorney General Edwin Meese, head of the Justice Department under President Reagan, and therefore overseeing the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS], requested that INS officers adjudicate Soviet Jews on an individual basis, ignoring many years of precedent in dealing with Soviet Jews. Meese offered them “parole in the public interest” if denied refugee status. This allowed Soviet Jews to enter the US legally, but denied them access to “the social assistance programs that accompany refugee status.” In addition an affidavit of support was required from a US sponsor.

HIAS reacted quickly, meeting in January 1989 with other Jewish communal leaders and then joined forces with the new Attorney General Richard Thornburgh; outside counsel wrote a legal memorandum with which HIAS and other immigration agencies could clearly explain their case to the new White House staff and members of Congress. Support in Congress helped convince Thornburgh by the end of the fiscal year to reverse the Meese directive.

Denials  had continued to grow over the first 6 months of 1989, and HIAS modified its processing operations, but it was determined “that only a fundamental reorientation of HIAS staff and an equally fundamental rearrangement of its systems would … significantly [reduce] … the denials.”

“It became clear that HIAS needed to retrain a staff which had never dealt with anything but a friendly and sympathetic INS.”

Refugee Denial Rates in Rome, 1988-1989

HIAS worked as quickly as possible, within the system and the policies and laws that had changed without taking into consideration the effect on those seeking refuge in the United States. Denials spiked in March 1989 and eventually, after legislative corrections, staff retraining and a 75% increase in worldwide HIAS staff, procedural changes at HIAS, and a large increase in expenses, HIAS was able to “consistently [process] a monthly flow approaching 5,000, reuniting more Jewish refugees with their stateside families than any time since World War II.”



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
Page 1
Page 2
page 3
Page 4
Page 5

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


Indochinese Refugees

Together with other resettlement agencies, HIAS participated in finding communities able to provide new homes for refugees from what was then referred to as Indochina. In a previous blog post on the use of “Indochina” as a place name, Elizabeth explained the history of the term, who and what it refers to, and our team’s reasoning in retaining it:

Today, the term “Indochina” is understood as an imperialist, Orientalist one. However, at the peak year of the refugee crisis, this was the term used in international parlance.

The HIAS archives team took the implications of the term under serious consideration while processing materials related to this refugee crisis, and we decided to maintain its usage.

Files from the 1970s that help to tell the story of the HIAS role in resettling Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees in the United States appear in several series within the collection, including the Executive Vice-President Files and in the Migration Department of US Operations within the Program Series. And now also in the files of then Financial Vice-President, Harry Friedman

Throughout the project we  have found poorly labeled files from the desk of Harry M. Friedman, who wore several hats in his approximately 30 years at HIAS: Financial Vice-President, Comptroller and Secretary [to the Board of Directors]. In our last delivery of boxes from the warehouse, two final (we think) boxes of  his files appeared, labeled “Asia”. On closer inspection they are clearly Friedman’s files from 1975 to 1977, during the resettlement of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Many of these files are, as was in use at the time, labeled with some form of “Indochinese Refugees”.

His files contain primarily, as expected, financial and statistical information – funding coming in from large US government grants from the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services, and how it was distributed to the HIAS network of Jewish Family Services organizations in towns across the country. Different for the HIAS network in working with these refugees, was that they were among the first non-Jewish refugees aided by HIAS. This choice, to work with the government to help people in real need of safe new homes, set a precedent that continues today, as HIAS broadened its mission to help those in need no matter their country of birth or religion.

Many of the resettlement agencies working in the US then, as now, were religion-based. Church World Service (CWS), United States Catholic Charities (now Catholic Charities USA), and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, were some of the groups who worked alongside HIAS all over the world, as they did with these refugees. The groups were allocated government funding to cover the costs incurred in arranging travel to their various local community agencies and then in helping individual families with English classes, job training, and general acculturation assistance at the community level.

One document that caught my attention was this one – a memorandum from one HIAS staff member to others on the team working on this project, including Harry Friedman. The statistics came from the Religious News Service, which explains why they are broken down by religion. The writer seems to refer to her Catholic colleagues in a way I hope they would have found humorous if they had seen the memo:

Indochinese refugee resettlement statistics, according to the religion of the resettlement organization

The camps Miriam Cantor refers to were the army camps where the refugees were living in family groups as they awaited resettlement to a community somewhere in the United States. Everyone worked hard to place these families in welcoming communities, as aid agencies do today. Details may change in the resettlement process, but the need remains as critical as ever.

There is never anything routine in the saving of a life

Karl Zukerman, HIAS Executive Vice-President (1984-1991) wrote a memo to his “fellow HIAS staff members”, on January 4, 1987 that he called, “A Note for the New Year”.

Memorandum to all HIAS staff, 1987, page 1

He started off, “As I walked by the office of one of the migration staff last Thursday, I overhead part of a phone conversation she was having with someone who, apparently, was the family member of a Jew in Iran. What I heard was,

When you know when your relative will be escaping into Pakistan, please call me so that …

Zukerman continued, “… just the opening phrase brought me up short! I’ve been working for HIAS over five years, a lot less than many of you, but still I’ve been involved in some “interesting” cases.

“Yet the idea, the situation, so simply described in that opening phrase, took my breath away. It helped remind me of just how fundamental is the work we all do … it’s important to remember that there is never anything routine in the saving of a life or the redeeming of a captive.”

There is probably a copy in Zukerman’s Executive Vice-President files, but the copy I found is located elsewhere – in the files Haim Halachmi, then the director of the HIAS office in Israel. Unfortunately the copy is on thermal fax paper, and the fax machine at one end or another had a blurry streak down the left side of the document on both pages.

Memorandum to all HIAS staff, page 2

Zukerman ends with, “No matter how long you’ve been at HIAS, remind yourself of the drama and significance in which you play a part. Remember how important a part you play in the most important of all activities, saving lives. Remember ‘…escaping into Pakistan…’ “

HIAS helps rescue David Ben-Gurion from Ellis Island, 1940

I spent a few minutes this week looking for information on the Jewish community in Bogota, Colombia in the 1950s for friends whose family migrated from Poland to Paris to Bogota to New York before, during and after WWII. The earliest groups of files in the HIAS collection include some of the surviving files of Dr. Henry Shoskes. Dr. Shoskes was based at the New York office of HIAS in the 1940s and 1950s, but spent months at a time traveling between overseas offices of HIAS. Previous posts on Dr. Shoskes can be found here:

Dr. Henry Shoskes in Latin America, 1947

The Jewish Problem and the Catholic Point of View, Quito, 1946

Your Representatives Just Disappeared from Sao Paolo

When in Shoskes’ folder titled, “Latin America – Memoranda and Reports, 1947-1956”, searching for information on Bogota, a 2-page memorandum caught my attention.

Dated May 9, 1951, the memorandum is from Bernard Kornblith, Supervisor, Pier Service Department, to Dr. Henry Shoskes, HIAS Overseas Representative. The subject is: “Ben Gurion’s arrival in the United States in 1940”. There is no context about why Kornblith chose this moment in 1951 to write to Shoskes about this episode from 11 years earlier. The copy in the file is a carbon copy, which you can see in the lack of crispness in the text.

Note that the ship Ben-Gurion arrived on was the S.S. Scythia – misspelled  in the memo – which itself has an interesting history. Below is the memorandum:

David Ben Gurion’s Arrival in the United States, page 1
Kornblith memo, page 2

Kornblith must have repeated this story many times; a very similar retelling  appears in a new book by Rick Richman, and in his article in Mosaic magazine (January 2018).

It may seem that Kornblith’s responsibilities as the supervisor of HIAS’ pier services on Ellis Island, while offering much-needed assistance to immigrants, most days involved routine paperwork. How surprising therefore, on a Rosh Hashanah morning, to find himself pulling Rabbi Stephen Wise out of High Holiday services. Through Wise’s intervention, the future first prime minister of Israel avoided an uncomfortable couple of days and nights on Ellis Island.

I hope Kornblith was aware of the thousands of new immigrants he helped ease into new lives in the United States in the decades he worked for HIAS, down at the piers.

David Ben-Gurion on another pre-state visit to New York. Most likely seeking funding, he is pictured here with Hadassah leaders Rose Halprin (left) and Etta Rosensohn, 1946