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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Ted Kennedy, HIAS, and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

Early in his political career, Senator Edward M. Kennedy advocated for the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which changed the immigration quota system from one based on national origins to one based upon the immigrant’s skills and family connections to United States citizens or permanent residents. In the wake of this, a Protocol to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which had protected refugees crossing international borders who had suffered persecution in Europe prior to January 1, 1951, was signed on January 31, 1967.

1967 Protocol for Refugees
Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, published in December 1966

The United States acceded to the Protocol on November 1, 1968 at a ceremony at the United Nations, which was attended by Gaynor I. Jacobson representing the United HIAS Service (UHS) and the American Council of Voluntary Agencies (ACVA). Jacobson was one of 45 representatives of American voluntary agencies, ethnic and immigration organizations, and labor unions who supported the United States’ accession to the Protocol.

1968 U.S. Accession of Protocol
Letter sent to the HIAS Board in preparation for a board meeting, November 12, 1968

The 1967 Protocol afforded refugee status without regard to the time or location of persecution. This was particularly important as new refugee situations continued to develop all over the world after 1951.  HIAS would continue to take an active role in numerous subsequent refugee crises in the decades following the Protocol. Senator Kennedy was involved with issues and legislation related to immigration and refugees for his entire career and had a long correspondence with Gaynor I. Jacobson, HIAS’ Executive Vice President from 1966-1981, regarding this work, which can be traced through Jacobson’s professional correspondence.

Ted Kennedy
Unidentified man, James P. Rice, Senator Ted Kennedy, Gaynor I. Jacobson, circa 1968

 

Committee on Work in Foreign Countries, 1924

Abraham Herman, chairman of the HIAS Committee on Work in Foreign Countries, led a discussion at a committee meeting on May 19, 1924 on the resolution recently adopted by the Board of Directors to aid refugees and immigrants stranded while in transit as immigration laws were changed in the United States.

The discussion centered on “how HIAS could begin its work in behalf of Jewish immigrants and refugees, originally destined to the United States and other countries, who, because of new restrictive immigration laws, could not complete their journey, and are now stranded at the European ports of embarkation and in foreign countries.”

To perfect a plan of how HIAS could begin to work with new restrictive immigration laws, 1924
HIAS’ plan to work with new restrictive immigration laws, 1924

At the next meeting of this committee, June 5, 1924, representatives of other Jewish organizations were present, including leaders from the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, the Council of Jewish Women (CJW), and the Jewish Daily Forward and other Jewish newspapers. The resolution adopted by HIAS’ Board of Directors to “undertake the necessary work in behalf of the immigrants and refugees wherever they may be …” was presented:

"HIAS, alone or in cooperation with other organizations, undertake the necessary work in behalf of the immigrants and refugees wherever they may be"
“HIAS, alone or in cooperation with other organizations, [shall] undertake the necessary work in behalf of the immigrants and refugees wherever they may be”
Further discussion included “the entire question of Jewish immigration …”. It was decided that representatives of HIAS, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and “some of the labor organizations” would arrange for a conference of “all Jewish National Organizations, with the object of considering and acting upon a plan for solving the problem of Jewish immigration.”

Of course the world still struggles to solve the “problem” of immigration for large groups of economic, political and religious refugees continually seeking a better life.

HIAS and immigration reform

At three of HIAS’s annual meetings in the 1960s (when HIAS was known as United HIAS Service), speakers included United States Senators who worked with HIAS to “develop immigration and refugee policies responsive to the demands of our troubled times.” With immigration such an integral part of the work of HIAS over the last century and with its appearance in the current presidential campaign, I thought I’d take a look at what was under discussion 50 years ago.

Senator Hart speaks at HIAS Annual Meeting, 1962
Senator Hart speaks at United HIAS Service Annual Meeting, 1962

Senator Philip A. Hart (Democrat of Michigan) was the principal speaker at United HIAS Service’s 78th Annual Meeting at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City on March 11, 1962. At the time, Hart was chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees.

According to a United HIAS Service “News Release”, Hart said, ” ‘ There is no yardstick with which to measure the impact of our immigration policies on our foreign relations’ … suggesting that ‘in the long run, it may equal the impact of our economic aid program.’ ”  He added, ” ‘it is important that we bring our present immigration concepts and practices more closely into line with our traditions and ideals.’ ” His speech ended with this: “The most insensitive person must realize that great forces have been unleashed throughout the world. As Barbara Ward puts it so well in her recent book, ‘The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations’, we live in ‘a catastrophically revolutionary age.’

Keating Optimistic on Immigration Law Revision, 1963
Keating Optimistic on Immigration Law Revision, 1963

Senator Kenneth B. Keating (Republican, New York) spoke at the 79th Annual Meeting of United HIAS Service on March 11, 1963. At the time he was co-sponsoring the Hart-Keating immigration bill in Congress. Key objectives of the bill, as outlined in his speech, included the “elimination of the outmoded 1920 census as a basis for granting quota visas to nationality groups. Other considerations, such as the importance of uniting broken families and maintaining the flow of skilled labor to our shores are more important guides to a sound immigration program than the population of this country in 1920 … A nation with our traditions and heritage must also continue to do its part in the world-wide effort to resettle homeless refugees and escapees”.

In 1965, Senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke at the United HIAS Service’s 81st Annual Meeting on March 14. Also fighting for immigration reform, Senator Kennedy said that the current bill in the Senate “would eliminate from the statute books a form of discrimination totally alien to the spirit of the Constitution.”

Liberalized Immigration Law Urged at United HIAS Annual Meeting
“Liberalized Immigration Law Urged at United HIAS Annual Meeting”, 1965

Another speaker at the meeting was Abba P. Schwartz, Administrator of the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs at the United States State Department, who said, ” ‘The foundations of this nation were laid by people escaping oppression.  Surely our concern is not for the accident of place of birth but for the inherent moral work of the individual who seeks to come to our shores.’ ”

Times change, immigration priorities and public opinion on immigration evolve, and it remains an important and hotly contested plank in the current campaigns. HIAS continues to rescue those in need and resettle them in the United States and elsewhere.