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Collection Guide: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)

Overview of the individual archival collections and library materials found at the Center relating to the HIAS organization and their activities.

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Historical Overview

HIAS was formed in New York City by Jewish immigrants from Russia, to aid fellow Russian Jews in their migration to the United States.

HIAS grew through the first third of the 20th century and the Great Depression, absorbing related immigrant aid organizations in Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia. It joined forces with related overseas organizations—the Jewish Colonization Association (the JCA and/or ICA), and the Jewish Emigration Committee of Europe (identified by various other formal names, but always as EmigDirect), known as EmigDirect—in 1927 to form HICEM, which came to act as HIAS’ international arm. HICEM was instrumental to HIAS’ rescue work conducted during the Second World War, even after EmigDirect dropped out of the agreement and the JCA/ICA was restricted to using its funds in Britain.

After the war, HICEM dissolved, and HIAS opened offices in Europe and on other continents from which Jews were emigrating. HIAS worked together with other agencies—Jewish and non-Jewish, governmental and non-governmental, national and international—to coordinate efforts in securing visas and other immigration documents, arranging travel, and providing complex resettlement services over the first months and years of an individual or family’s move to the United States or elsewhere. Through their overseas offices HIAS staff served as the direct link between refugees and displaced persons and HIAS headquarters in New York.

In 1949 and 1950, "HIAS and the European staffs of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the United Service for New Americans (USNA) combined services to obtain the release of Jewish displaced persons from the camps in Germany and Austria." Soon after their success with combined services, it was decided to formally consolidate the major Jewish agencies operating in the migration field, to form one world-wide agency. In 1954 HIAS merged with the United Service for New America (USNA) and the Migration Department of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to form the United HIAS Service (UHS)—still referred to as "HIAS."

In the 1950s and 1960s HIAS aided the migration of Jewish refugees from post-war Europe, which involved the movement and resettlement of thousands of Jews from Europe, as well as from temporary refuge in Shanghai and throughout Latin America. After the ouster of Batista from power in Cuba, HIAS was also involved with helping Jewish families emigrate to the United States, along with planeloads of children sent alone to join relatives in the U.S. At the same time, in the aftermath of Israeli statehood in 1948 there were large numbers of Jewish refugees migrating from communities in North Africa and the Middle East; many of those who did not settle in Israel were helped to the United States by HIAS.

In the 1970s and 1980s HIAS and other resettlement agencies worked with the United States government to resettle refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the American withdrawal from Indochina. And a very large portion of the files in this collection deal with the migration of Jews from the Soviet Union and countries of the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

By the 1980s, HIAS was becoming more involved in government relations, working to effect changes in immigration laws, and educating their staff in continually changing federal policies in connection with refugee and asylum status, green card and other benefits and other issues on which HIAS aided and advised their clients. As a large resettlement agency, HIAS was eligible to receive funding from the United States Department of State and the Health and Human Services Department, to cover some of the costs of transporting, resettling and providing services for immigrants; several departments applied for and monitored these grants in terms of allocations to resettlement communities, reporting, and actual services provided. The HIAS 1996 annual report begins with a letter from Norman D. Tilles, HIAS president and Martin A. Wenick, Executive Vice-President, that clearly explains the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. In response, "HIAS increased its public policy and collaborative efforts while continuing to provide a wide-range of programs and services for the reception and resettlement of clients."

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Jews who chose to leave Russia and other former Soviet republics had left, there were no more large groups of Jews in need of migration assistance. HIAS' mission then evolved, continuing its work helping both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees and immigrants.around the world.