by Benjamin Owen
To understand the historical significance of the HIAS collection, it is first important to understand the organization’s role in Boston and around the world since its inception in 1881. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society served primarily as a legal aid to international Jews seeking to get to the United States or who had recently arrived. A closer examination of the individual case files reveals the magnitude of humanitarian work the society did for many thousands of Jewish immigrants. The breadth of their work went far beyond assisting immigrants with legal matters and often involved giving them financial and material aid. They processed thousands of letters and various pieces of correspondence every day in an age when it might take several months to get a reply. They dealt with many people calling on their office on Tremont Street on a daily basis and also sent workers to Boston’s immigration office and docks to help the newly arriving immigrants. They did all this and still found time to give careful and kind attention to each case which crossed their desks. I recently discovered a file for a man named Martin Hopfner which is a great example of their benevolent work.
Martin Hopfner arrived in the port of Boston on December 17th, 1940 on the U.S.S. Industria as a stowaway. This fact was discovered by immigration officials who quickly detained Mr. Hopfner and held him for trial. On that same day the Boston HIAS office received an anonymous phone call informing them of the plight of Mr. Hopfner and claiming that he was of Jewish descent. Martin Hopfner was a German subject who had been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Immigration officials did not believe him to be Jewish; rather they feared him to be a fifth columnist, intent on infiltrating and undermining U.S. society. Despite these fears, HIAS executive secretary, Mrs. Helen Alpert, sent a package of clothes and needed items to Mr. Hopfner, who was detained in East Boston.
At the end of December the immigration hearing for Mr. Hopfner concluded and he was sent to a jail in Danbury, Connecticut to await deportation. On January 10th, 1941 Martin wrote to Mrs. Alpert thanking her for the kind letter she had recently sent him. He goes on to say: “I am much obliged to you for the way you are treating me, and I will never forget it, as I was in very poor shape before you so kindly took care of my need. In regard to my shoes the size are nine and I sure need a pair at the present time…..I would be very much pleased if it would not be asking too much of you, if you could send me some smokes.” Once again Martin got his shoes and smokes courtesy of Mrs. Alpert and HIAS. He wrote them again on January 19th, 1941: “Thank you for the shoes and your interest in my behalf thus far….My treatment here is the best possible and my only anxiety is that I be permitted to remain in this country and become a citizen and help my folks back home.”
The final document in Mr. Hopfner’s file dated April 14th, 1941 says that Martin would be released from the Danbury Reformatory on April 20th and then possibly sent to Ellis Island for deportation. Some research I did into Mr. Hopfner’s life indicates that he may have been able to stay in the United States and even may have enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. If anyone has any information regarding Martin Hopfner I would be very interested in talking with them.
Until next time.
Benjamin Owen is a student at Northeastern University, earning his degree in History. He has interned with AJHS since June 2011.
Below are letters from Martin Hopfner’s file. To read a letter, just select the image.