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.

 

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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.

HIAS files – Brazil

I recently processed 2 boxes of files from 1990-1993, which contain the files of Fred (elsewhere known as Ephraim) Weinstein. Fred had been the Director of the Latin American headquarters for HIAS, based in Rio de Janeiro from about 1958 to 1988. (He is listed in the 1986 annual report as the director of the Latin American Operations, but that is the last mention I have found of him in the annual reports.) There is a short gap in records by or about Weinstein until 1990, when he resurfaces in the New York office, in the Overseas Operations department, as the Director of Latin American Affairs.

His files contain mostly correspondence between Weinstein and members of the Jewish communities in various Latin American cities, and with colleagues in New York including Dail Stolow, who became Director of Overseas Operations in 1991, and several files of Latin American country reports he sent to HIAS presidents and others. There are also subject files on many Latin American countries, with correspondence and many  newsclippings from both US and Latin American news sources. There is, as expected, a mix of English and Spanish material, and one correspondent seemed to write exclusively in French.

One of the most interesting documents that turned up, at least for this archivist, is this 1992 memo from Fred Weinstein to Dail Stolow, letting Dail know the plans for the files from the Sao Paulo office and the Rio de Janeiro office. One can only hope that the transfers were made to Brazilian repositories and have been kept safe over the past 25 years.

Fred Weinstein requests authorization to transfer HIAS’s Sao Paulo files to the Jewish Brazilian Archives there, 1992

Weinstein’s memo also mentions a plan to transfer some of the Rio de Janeiro office records to “the Jewish Museum”, most likely in Rio de Janeiro.

Letter from UNIBES to Fred Weinstein, 1992, regarding the transfer of the Sao Paulo files

Anyone needing more information about HIAS’ work in Latin America from the 1950s to the 1980s may be able to follow the clues here in order to locate the HIAS files. Fortunately, the Jewish Brazilian Archives in Sao Paulo (Arquivo Historico Judaico Brasileiro), has a very current website: http://www.ahjb.org.br/

A certain amount of information on HIAS work in Latin America can be pulled from the records in our collection (particularly the Executive Vice-President files and even the excellent country summaries in the annual reports), but for the overseas files themselves travel is probably required.

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…’ “

More than just a pretty facade: HIAS at Lafayette Street

The Astor Library in 1854.
Unknown – Harry Miller Lydenberg (July 1916). “History of the New York Public Library”. Bulletin of the New York Public Library 20: 570-571.; first published in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion

The building that stands at 425 Lafayette Street today was originally built as a home for the East Village’s lavish Astor Library. After more than fifty years of serving the public, the library consolidated with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Foundation to become what we now recognize as the New York Public Library.

But what was to become of this architectural marvel? Enter the up-and-coming organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

HIAS hired architect Benjamin Levitan to oversee the necessary alterations to create a suitable New York City headquarters. He was very impressed by the building’s original grand structure, including its southerly double-height spaces, elaborate iron and wood book stacks, columns, skylights, and vaulted ceilings—but knew that the building had to become more than just a place for well-designed silent reflection. Levitan and HIAS wanted to create a place that was welcoming, yet able to provide newly-arrived Jewish immigrants the aid, emergency shelter, and sanctuary for religious practice, they sought and deserved as they began their new lives in New York.

After the final structural reconstruction efforts were finished, a community bazaar was held to furnish the building, it was dedicated by President Warren G. Harding on June 5, 1920. This new HIAS location provided ample space for both the organization’s Executive headquarters and facilities to ease immigrants into many aspects of American life.

The building’s features and services included:

  • Separate dormitories for men and women
  • Two kosher kitchens—one for meat preparation and one for dairy
  • A large dining room for comfortable, communal, social eating
  • An operating synagogue, both for those living within HIAS’ walls and neighborhood residents
  • Holiday celebrations, such as a yearly neighborhood Passover Seder
  • Facilities for children, including donated toys and games, classrooms, and a playground

In addition to providing personal shelter and community interaction, 425 Lafayette Street also became ‘base camp’ for various HIAS-sponsored immigration and community services:

HIAS Immigrant Bank
The bank, which was licensed by NY State, was established in 1923 and limited itself to the receiving and transmitting of money to/from immigrants’ families abroad. For many years, no other U.S. banks would send dollars abroad.

Citizenship Services
The HIAS offices were open every Sunday in order to accommodate those who were not able to apply for citizenship applications during the week. HIAS office staff also prepared Affidavits of Support and led citizenship classes for clients during these extra weekend hours.

Ellis Island Services
HIAS set up satellite offices at Ellis Island in order to offer personal and immediate aid to those arriving in New York, those who were in danger of being deported back home, and those requiring other forms of legal aid. 

In honor of HIAS’ work and how they turned one building into a place of hope for thousands of Jewish migrants, a plaque is affixed to the outside of 425 Lafayette Street (what now is the Public Theater). It reads:

HIAS plaque outside 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY.

This plaque is dedicated to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which occupied this building from 1921 to 1965. 

As the International Migration Agency of the American Jewish Community, HIAS’ work, providing rescue and refuge for endangered and persecuted people of all faiths and backgrounds around the world, continues to this day. Founded in 1881, HIAS has rescued more than 4,500,000 men, women, and children, including members of almost every Jewish family in America. Tens of thousands of these refugees and migrants were sheltered and fed in this building before they entered the mainstream of life in this great nation. 

HIAS’ current New York City offices are located at 411 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.

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.

“They Boarded the Planes in Complete Silence”

This blog post is the second post about HIAS and Ethiopian Jewry. See the first post here.

A drought and famine, which was spurred on by the civil war, killed between 400,000 and 600,000 Ethiopians from 1983-1985, mainly in the northern part of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the fighting, poor economy, conscription starting at age 12, famine, and political repression, mostly going to Sudan. Among these refugees were thousands of Beta Israel.

In late 1984, after several years of secret negotiations between the Mossad and the Sudanese government, and with United States government intervention, a coordinated effort between the Israel Defense Forces, the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States embassy in Khartoum, mercenaries, Sudanese state security forces, Sudanese Muslims, and the secret police of Sudan resulted in the first airlift of Beta Israel, which was known as Operation Moses. Over six weeks, starting on November 21, 1984, more than 30 Trans European Airways flights, each carrying 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time, clandestinely flew approximately 7,200 to 8,000 Beta Israel to Israel via Brussels. Operation Moses ended on January 5, 1985, after Sudan’s Arab allies became aware of the operation through a leak in the press and pressured the Sudanese government to prevent any more Jews from going to Israel via Sudan.

Beta Israel2
Guidelines on Ethiopian Jewry sent in the wake of a press leak in January 1985.

This stranded approximately 800-1,000 Beta Israel in Sudanese refugee camps. In late March 1985, six United States Air Force planes brought these remaining Jews to southern Israel in Operation Joshua. This second airlift followed a secret appeal to President Reagan by all 100 U.S. senators to save the Ethiopians Jews.

Beta Israel1
Letter sent to Presdient Ronald Reagan by HIAS president Robert L. Israeloff after Operation Joshua.

From 1985-1990, the Ethiopian government made it very difficult for Ethiopian Jews to leave the country for Israel. In late 1990 and early 1991, the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces took advantage of political changes in the Ethiopian civil war as rebel forces began to gain ground against the government, and made covert plans to get the Beta Israel to Israel. The final large-scale airlift of Beta Israel took place from May 24 to May 25, 1991, and was known as Operation Solomon. 40 non-stop Israeli flights between Ethiopia and Israel using 35 civilian and military airplanes, including one Ethiopian airliner, transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours. This was achieved in part due to United States government pressure. At one point overnight, 28 aircraft were in the air at one time. All of the flights were crammed with passengers, often two or three people to a seat and, in many cases, the seats had been removed to accommodate as many people as possible, up to 1,122 passengers on one plane. The immigrants were met by ambulances on the tarmac in Israel. 300 elderly and frail passengers, as well as seven babies, including one set of twins, who were born on the planes, and their mothers, were transported directly to the hospital.

Beta Israel3
Memo to the HIAS Executive Committee after Operation Solomon discussing HIAS’ previously unpublicized role in the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

After the conclusion of Operation Solomon, HIAS published a long press release detailing the organization’s role in helping thousands of Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel. The story particularly highlighted the work of Haim Halachmi, the director of HIAS’ office in Israel, who had been an integral part of the movement from the beginning in the mid-1970s. President Ben Zion Leuchter felt it was important that the public knew that HIAS had been deeply involved in the rescue of the Beta Israel for many years, even when it had been too dangerous for the organization to publicly acknowledge this fact.