The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) collection is one of the most prized collections of the AJHS-NEA. HIAS was founded in New York in 1880s to help Jewish immigrants settle into their new country. In its early years the organization provided shelter and social services, and assisted immigrants in finding Jewish religious services, kosher food, and employment. During WWI and WWII, HIAS worked to locate displaced persons and arrange for affidavits of sponsorship. The organization still aids and advocates for refugees around the world today.

The Boston office of HIAS was chartered in 1904. Documents in the AJHS-NEA’s collection include arrival cards of immigrants who passed through the Port of Boston, case files, ship manifests, and correspondence. The collection is historically significant and provides a wealth of material to genealogists.

The HIAS collection is restricted due to the fragility of the documents. Currently, the AJHS-NEA is working on removing these restrictions by making the collection, with its detailed historical and genealogical information, available online to the public. Interns and volunteers processing individual case files came across some fascinating stories.

Martin Hopfner, for instance, arrived in Boston in 1940 as a stowaway on a ship. While he was being detained by immigration officials, HIAS received an anonymous phone call claiming that Hopfner was Jewish. Hopfner, a German subject, had been living in Argentina, and US officials did not believe him to be of Jewish descent. They suspected that he was in fact a German infiltrator. Still, HIAS executive secretary Helen Alpert sent Hopfner some clothes and other necessities.

Several weeks after his arrival in America, Hopfner’s immigration hearing ended and he was sent to the Danbury Reformatory in Connecticut to await deportation. While in jail, he wrote to Helen Alpert of HIAS, thanking her effusively for her help and requesting a pair of shoes and some cigarettes. She granted his request, and he wrote again soon after, saying that he was being treated well and that “…my only anxiety is that I be permitted to remain in this country and become a citizen…”

Helen Alpert worked tirelessly to help many immigrants and would-be immigrants in various circumstances. Some of them are known to have continued corresponding with her after gaining permanent residence or American citizenship. What became of Martin Hopfner, however, is less clear. The latest document in his case file is dated April 1941. He may have been released from the Danbury facility and sent to Ellis Island for deportation shortly after that. But there is also a chance he may have stayed in United States, and possibly joined the U.S. Army.

Next: Why Digitize?

This entry was posted in Spotlight. Bookmark the permalink.