HIAS Launches Campaign to Preserve Immigrant Arrival Records

Posted on Wed, Dec 14, 2005 at 10:20 am

Phase I of massive project will cover largest Russian wave, 1960s-2000s

(New York City) – HIAS, Inc., the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has begun a massive undertaking to digitally preserve millions of case files in its archives. The campaign to raise funds for the first phase of the project will be led by Genia Brin, a scientist working with NASA who, along with her family, was resettled in the United States with the assistance of HIAS.

The HIAS archives contain extensive records on immigration, arrival and resettlement of clients, dating back to 1909. The organization began operating in 1881. Since that time HIAS has helped more than 4.5 million people immigrate to and resettle in the United States.

The preservation project will assure that the contents of the decaying paper documents in HIAS’ archives will be accessible for generations to come. Phase I of the project will focus on preserving the portion of the archives documenting the largest wave of Russian Jewish immigration to the U.S., which began during the “Let My People Go” campaign in the 1960s, when the American Jewish community led an effort to persuade the Soviet Union to allow Jews to leave that country. The Let My People Go campaign resulted in the migration to the U.S. of more than 500,000 Russian Jews.

“HIAS’ goal of preserving its archive is of utmost importance to the Russian Jewish community because it contains our history, and a record of our arrival in the United States,” says Brin, who arrived from Russia with her family in 1979. “This is something that our children and grandchildren will appreciate when they want to know more about their family history. It is also a way we in the Russian-speaking community can show our gratitude to HIAS for bringing over and helping resettle half a million Russian Jewish refugees in America.”

Brin, a scientist currently working on issues related to climate and weather forecasting at NASA, is a graduate of the prestigious School of Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University.

“We are honored to have Genia Brin chair this important campaign,” says Neil Greenbaum, president and CEO of HIAS. “She understands, as a Russian Jewish immigrant to America, how critical this project is for future generations.”

The launch of the archive preservation project is a flagship effort to coincide with HIAS’ 125th anniversary year beginning in 2006. The fundraising effort will target Russian-Jewish immigrants, charitable foundations and groups and individuals concerned with Jewish history and genealogy.

A Time-Sensitive Problem

“The HIAS archive is a working archive,” explains Greenbaum. “We must do something now to insure it survives well into the future, otherwise we will fail in our duty to future generations to keep our history alive.”

The HIAS archive has for years been used for locating lost or dispersed family members, relatives and friends; research into personal and family histories; status verification (e.g. Claims Conference, Holocaust victims and their kin’s claims of restitution, as well as for the Social Security Administration); and academic research. The original paper case files, currently stored at a HIAS warehouse, are deteriorating and expected to be unusable in a few years, explains Greenbaum. Some files include century-plus-old delicate paper documents that are already crumbling.

The archive contains arrival cards and cross-referenced microfilms for approximately 70,000 families and individuals the agency helped from 1970 through 1979 and computerized summaries of files for more than 130,000 families and individuals resettled from 1979 to today.

In Phase I of the preservation project arrival cards that correspond to paper case files from 1960 to the present will be digitized. That will entail scanning and converting each arrival card into a digitized format; creating a searchable database; manually inputting information from files; and summarizing and integrating key information from the approximately 250,000 records. A Web-based search tool, accessible to appropriate individuals and their immediate family members, will be developed for public access to “first level” information.

For information about how to participate in the HIAS archive preservation campaign, contact Roberta Elliott at 212-613-1350, or Marina Belotserkovsky at 212-613-1337.