The Gross-Steinberg Family Tree presents:

HIAS Research for Phila,Pa

by James Gross

Date:    Wed, 17 Jul 1996
From:    James H Gross (
Article updated  July 1996. 
OBJECTIVE: To find copies of Phila case files on relatives compiled by HIAS For those of you who don't know what HIAS or case files are, I am including 2 definitions.

Definition #1: What is HIAS?

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was started in 1889 by Eastern European Jews in NY. It was known as the Hebrew Sheltering House, or Hachnosas Orchim in hebrew. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society began with a Lower East Side landsmanshaft,the Voliner Aid Shelter, concerned with a burial in Randall Island's potter's field of a Jewish immigrant, friendless and withough relatives, who died in the Ellis Island hospital. The men of the landmanshaft organized a society to oversee burial of such persons in Jewish cemeteries.

HIAS became one of a few groups serving as Ellis Island representatives, eventually merging with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association about 1908. It acquired the name HIAS in 1902 and became known as the UNITED HIAS SERVICE in 1954, when it merged with United Services for New Americans. It also absorbed the migration services of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In the 1st decade of this century, HIAS was the prime defender of the interests of Jewish immigrants en route to America and upon their arrival here, except the work on behalf of unaccompanied girls carried on by the Council of Jewish Women.

Ronald Sanders, "Shores of Refuge," Henry Holt:New York, 1988.
Avoyaynu Vol# 2,No# 3, 10/1986
1/10/95 Jewishgen Posting by Norman Greenfeld, entitled "HIAS" (NG253@ALBANY.ALBANY.EDU)

Definition #2: What are case files?

Case files are compiled notes put together by HIAS volunteers and caseworkers. These were generally put together at one or more time periods. A file was usually opened when the immigrant requested assistance. This assistance could have been financial, help with naturalization paperwork, or perhaps in getting a visa for a family member in post WWII Europe. Followups to initial requests may also have been added to the folders.

DIFFICULTIES: Physical records held by the PJAC at the Balch Institute. Due to their interpretation of privacy regulations, the PJAC state that they are prevented from letting anyone view them. However, they WILL allow you to view & copy a file if they receive a phone call from HIAS. This call from HIAS is interpreted as being verbal permission by HIAS and apparently satisfies their concern with the privacy regulations. To this day I do not understand nor have seen a printed copy of these regulations.

(1) Two aspirins. (2) Request to Mrs. Baker, the director, that a search be made through the old card files held at the office of HIAS. This is due to their new policy of not allowing anyone to look in person. 226 South 16TH St Phila,Pa (215-735-1670), (3) I strongly suggest that you ask her to make a copy of the card and mail it to you. This can assist the PJAC, at the Balch Institute in finding the file and is also good to have for your paper trail. (4)Have the HIAS office call the PJAC and speak to Don. HIAS must apparently give PJAC verbal permission for PJAC to let you see the files. This is per PJAC's interpretation of the privacy rules. You might be interested in knowing that the American Jewish Historical Society, in Waltham Mass, has similar files but places NO such restrictions on them... (5) Go to the Balch Institute and copy the file. Or write to the Balch Institute and ask them to copy it and mail it to you. (I have never done it by mail)

Balch Institute PJAC Attn: Donald Davis 18 South 7th Street Phila, Pa 19141 (215-925-8090)

For those of you who are not experienced with the Byzantine protocol of obtaining old records from some Jewish archives, you will quickly learn. It has been my experience that some research facilities are helpful while others are mediocre at best. For more reading on fustrating experiences I recommend Lawrence Tappers article entitled, " A Call to Arms" in the publication "Avotaynu", Vol XI, No. 1, Spring 1995, pg 3.

In regards to the Balch Institute, Lilly Schwartz was the archivist of the PJAC (Phila Jewish Archives Colection), which is a small, self contained reference library within the regular Balch library. As she is now deceased, it is now run by a very helpful fellow named Donald Davis. It is funded and answerable only to the Federation of Jewish Agencies in Phila. The problems that I had with Lilly Schwartz, seem to involve time and money. At the time of my request, it was my understanding that Mrs Schwartz was overworked and that she found the HIAS case file requests to be very time consuming. I cannot answer the question as to why the PJAC has possession of these case files if there is nonsufficient manpower to facilitate maintenance and support for these records. Apparently, limited funding limited Lilly's time to do complete searches. In past phone conversations, she had complained to me of the sheer bulk and volume of the files. I think that awareness of their limited funds and manpower will help you the researcher be aware that a "timely response" may take some time. As Donald is now in charge of the PJAC, perhaps things will change for the better.

As the PJAC is overworked, you must be very polite and be patient regarding their response time. Based on my experience, not all of the files are correctly filed. So, even if you get a copy of an index card from HIAS as I did, this will NOT guarantee that they will find anything. And, if her search fails to uncover the file(s), then you will not get anything. As I previously mentioned there is no appeal process and Dr. Preseisen, the PJAC director at the time, was not interested in hearing my complaints. When I attempted to contact him, he advised me that he was not responding as per his legal counsel. He never did give me the name & number of his attorney. To give you an idea of how uncooperative they can be, at one point, the PJAC even sent me letters accusing me of libel. And finally, due to archival policy, you are not allow to look for the papers yourself...

Part of my exasperation with this HIAS- PJAC procedure stems from earlier visits. I first used HIAS's resources in 1993 when they were at their old location on Walnut Street. They had let me look thru all the card files and make photocopies of any cards I desired. I then used the copies as proof that the files existed. Again, I had to argue and plead to get the actual case files.Ultimately, I was only able to get the file for my grandfather.

When I made another visit to the HIAS office in late December 1994, I found that they had moved to their new location at 226 South 16Th Street, where the Jewish Federation building is located. I was refused entry by a rude guard and was forced to call the HIAS office from a payphone out in the freezing weather. The secretary put me on hold twice and then told me that entry was refused on orders from Mr Klotz, the HIAS director.

I had called him (Mr Klotz) back the next day and he informed me that his policy had changed due to "undisclosed" complaints. I asked him if he would initiate a search if I sent a written request. He replied yes and requested that I send him the name of the person being searched, as well as their known address(es).

My request, sent the beginning of January 1995, was answered in March. I called Bob Klotz and verified that he had my letter. I do not know if my experience is typical of their turn around time. The interested researcher should make a copy of their letter and follow it up with a letter or phonecall if a timely response is not received.

Even after a bumpy time with the Balch and Lilly Schwartz, I sent her a donation as a thank you. I also sent a donation to HIAS. Yes, I sent them money as I finally figured out how to play the game. In retrospect, I don't think either institution is really geared for these types of genealogical requests. I guess that one must have infinite patience and be eternally understanding. I for one was too impatient and unaware of their staffing and funding limitations. I wish someone had shown ME this article! This writeup is shared to help other genealogists find records for their relatives. If I have offended anyone with my comments, I apologize. These words chronicle my experiences.

Several articles in Chronicles (JGS of Phila) have touched upon Balch. They include articles by Milt Botwinick, Avotaynu, Elaine Kolinsky, and Harry Boonin.

1997 info: My 1997 attempt to obtain info on the closed case files resulted in closed doors. My 1/27/97 letter to HIAS, requesting copies of index cards for several of my relatives, was FINALLY replied to on 10/31/97. They are now telling me to contact Lily Schwartz at the Balch. Only problem is that based on my past experience, I know that Lily's files are not organized well. And, Lilly Schwartz just informed me, in her letter of 11/10/97, that she is now charging ($10 first name,$5 each additional) to look for possible case files. Well, the only way a person can request a search is if they KNOW the files did exist. The only way to be sure of that is to look, or have HIAS look in their index card file. And apparently HIAS isn't going to bother doing that anymore. So, the index cards are wasting away in the HIAS offices and the case files are wasting away at the Balch (PJAC). 9/1998: The new director of HIAS ,Mrs Baker, is much easier to work with. She allows access to the files on Thurs & Fri, depending on her availability. Researchers must make an appointment in advance. 1/2000 Mr Donald Davis is now the head archivist. He is a very nice fellow. Apparently sometimes it is necessary to outlive grumpy archivists or wait til they retire. It is a shame when researchers have to hope for such events. ----------- Subject: Re: HIAS in the early 1900s. From: Date: Fri, 21 May 1999 11:19:16 EDT X-Message-Number: 5 In light of the recent postings regarding HIAS in Canada, I asked Janice Rosen, Archivist of the Canadian Jewish Congress National Archives to comment on the situation regarding Canadian records. She has replied and has asked me to post the following message on her behalf. The original post by Hilary Henkin asked: > I have family who were helped in their 1910 immigration by an > Aid Society - Could this have been the HIAS? Ms. Rosen responds: "HIAS was founded in 1902 in New York but, according to their book of institutional history, (_Visas To Freedom - The History of HIAS_ M. Wischnitzer, 1956.) they did not begin to operate in Europe until 1915, after starting out being a sheltering home for immigrants to NY. The Canadian branch of JIAS was founded during the first Plenary of Canadian Jewish Congress in March 1919. A family that was assisted before that date may have had help from the Baron de Hirsch Institute, which operated out of Montreal in Canada and had offices in Paris and London and, as I recall, other large European cities. The CJC Baron de Hirsch records are very sketchy for that period and do not give lists of immigrants helped. In terms of immigration and genealogy tracing, I think of 1900-1920 as kind of the "Dark Ages" of Canadian Jewish archival collections. Janice Rosen ( Canadian Jewish Congress Archives/ CJC web site 1590 Ave. Docteur Penfield, Montreal, Que. H3G 1C5, Canada Tel:(514)931-7531 fax: (514)931-0548 Posted by Stanley Diamond, Montreal

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