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Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society


Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

HIAS was founded in 1881. The exodus of Jewish emigrants from Russia spurred the creation of the society. HIAS assists Jews and other groups of people whose lives and freedom are believed to be at risk to relocate. Since its inception 'HIAS has helped resettle nearly 4.5 million people. HIAS offices throughout the world (United States, Israel, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Austria, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, Kenya, Panama and Chad) provide an array of legal and support services.

Early years

HIAS officially started on November 27, 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – HIAS.[1] The society provided assistance for immigrants arriving through Castle Garden; for those who needed a roof over their heads, a shelter was set up on Ward Island. Besides this immediate assistance, the Society helped immigrants find employment in New York and New Jersey and established agricultural colonies in other states to provide land on which they could settle. Among the volunteers working for the organization at that time was Emma Lazarus, author of “The New Colossus,” the poem later inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

In 1891, Jewish residents of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev were expelled and many came to America; Ellis Island was the point of entry for these new arrivals. The Society, now known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was active on the island facilitating legal entry, reception, and immediate care for the newly arrived. In the half-century following the establishment of a formal Ellis Island bureau in 1904,

HIAS helped more than 100,000 Jews who might otherwise have been turned away. The bureau provided translation services, guided immigrants through medical screening and other procedures, argued before the Boards of Special Enquiry to prevent deportations, lent needy Jews the $25 landing fee, and obtained bonds for others guaranteeing their employable status.

The Society also searched for relatives of detained immigrants in order to secure the necessary affidavits of support to guarantee that the new arrivals would not become public charges. Lack of such affidavits and/or material means impacted a large number of immigrants: of the 900 immigrants detained during one month in 1917, 600 were held because they had neither money nor friends to claim them. Through advertising and other methods, the Society was able to locate relatives for the vast majority of detainees, who in a short time were released from Ellis Island.

Many of the Jews traveling in steerage on the steamship lines across the Atlantic refused the non-kosher food served on their journeys and arrived at Ellis Island malnourished and vulnerable to deportation on medical grounds. In 1911, the Society installed a kosher kitchen on the Island. Between 1925 and 1952, HIAS' kosher kitchen provided more than a half million meals to immigrants; in the peak year, 1940, 85,794 meals were served. The Society also provided religious services and musical concerts at Ellis Island. It ran an employment bureau and sold railroad tickets at reduced rates to immigrants headed for other cities.

In 1909, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society merged with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association and became universally known as HIAS. By 1914, HIAS had branches in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and an office in Washington, D.C.

In the summer of 1911, HIAS set up an Oriental Department to meet the growing needs of immigrants from the Balkans and Near East, who began arriving in the U.S. in considerable numbers. Between 1908 and 1913, approximately 10,000 Jewish emigrants left the Middle East for the U.S.

During this period, resettlement of Jewish immigrants included assistance in obtaining U.S. citizenship. For this a rudimentary knowledge of English and familiarity with American institutions were mandatory. In addition to classes given at its own building, HIAS arranged educational courses for the immigrants through a network of local Jewish organizations. From 1909 to 1913, HIAS helped more than 35,000 new immigrants become naturalized citizens.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought the largest influx of Jews from Eastern Europe to date: 138,051 in that year alone. However, when the North Atlantic became a battle zone and German submarines seriously impaired overseas passenger traffic, immigration numbers plunged. The war made it increasingly difficult for American-based families to maintain contact with their scattered family members behind enemy lines. To address this, HIAS sent one of its operatives to Europe to establish communications. He succeeded in securing permission from the German and Austro-Hungarian High Command for residents of the military zones to write short messages to their families to be distributed by HIAS in New York. HIAS also accepted and delivered messages sent by the zone’s non-Jewish population. By war’s end, HIAS had transmitted a total of 300,000 communications on behalf of separated families.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 – and the following civil war, famine, and pogroms that left about 50,000 Jews dead – created another surge of emigration from the former Russian Empire. HIAS continued to help these immigrants find safe haven despite growing anti-immigration sentiments in the U.S.

Between the years 1909 and 1919, HIAS registered 482,742 immigrants arriving in the U.S. HIAS’ Ellis Island Bureau interceded with 28,884 held for special inquiry, of whom 22,780 were admitted based on second hearings, with only 6,104 deported. During this period HIAS facilitated the naturalization of 64,298 immigrants.

Between the wars

The dislocation and turmoil following World War I led to acts of anti-Semitism throughout the former war zone, especially in Poland, Romania, Russia, and Hungary. While other Jewish agencies, most notably the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, supplied Jews in the affected countries with food, clothing, and medical supplies, HIAS created a worldwide network of Jewish organizations to provide assistance in immigration to the USA, Canada, South America, Australia, and China. The establishment of HICEM in 1927 proved critical to the later rescue operation that saved thousands of Jewish lives during World War II.

HICEM resulted from the merger of three Jewish migration associations: New York-based HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society); ICA (Jewish Colonization Association), which was based in Paris but registered as a British charitable society; and Emigdirect, a migration organization based in Berlin. HICEM is an acronym of these organizations’ names.

The agreement between the three organizations stipulated that all local branches outside the U.S. would merge into HICEM, while HIAS would still deal with Jewish immigration to the U.S. However, Emigdirect was forced to withdraw from the merger in 1934, and British wartime regulations later restricted the ICA from using its funds outside Britain. Thus, for a while, HICEM was funded exclusively by HIAS and could be considered as its European extension.

World War II and the Holocaust

By the time World War II broke out in September 1939, HICEM had offices throughout Europe, South and Central America, and the Far East. Its employees advised and prepared European refugees for emigration, including helping them during their departure and arrival.

HICEM's European headquarters were based in Paris. After Germany invaded and conquered France in mid-1940, HICEM closed its Paris offices, moving to Marseille in the so-called “free zone” of France, and to Lisbon, Portugal. Until November 11, 1942, HICEM employees were at work in French internment camps looking for Jews who met U.S. State Department immigration requirements and were ready to leave France. At the time of the German invasion of France, there were approximately 300,000 native and foreign Jews living there; however, the State Department’s policies curbing immigration meant that the number of applicants far exceeded the number allowed to leave. With the German occupation of France, HICEM moved to the town of Brive la Gaillarde. It had an office in the upper level of the building of the Synagogue led by Rabbi David Feuerwerker, the Rabbi of Brive. Here a small group of HICEM employees – establishing contact and cooperation with the local underground forces of the French resistance – succeeded in smuggling Jews out of France to Spain and Switzerland. Twenty-one HICEM employees were deported and killed in the concentration camps; others were killed in direct combat with the Nazis.

During this period, HICEM in France worked closely with HICEM in Lisbon, which as a neutral port was the path of choice for Jews escaping Europe to North and South America. Other organizations also moved their European offices to Lisbon at that time, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC or Joint) and the American Friends Service Committee.

From 1940 onward, HICEM's activities were partly supported by the Joint. Despite friction between the two organizations, they worked together to provide refugees with tickets and information about visas and transportation, and helped them leave Lisbon on neutral Portuguese ships. In all, some 40,000 Jews managed to escape Europe during the Holocaust with HICEM’s and the JDC’s assistance. HICEM was dissolved in 1945; HIAS continued its work in Europe under its own name.

The Displaced Persons

In the wake of World War II, HIAS assumed its most massive job to date – assisting with the emigration needs of the approximately 300,000 Jewish displaced persons throughout the former war zone. Nearly every surviving Jewish family in Central and Eastern Europe had been separated, with parents and children scattered throughout many countries. Reuniting them so they could emigrate as a unit was one of the primary tasks for HIAS workers in the field. Obtaining documents required for emigration was difficult as throughout the war people had fled from one place to another, escaped from concentration camps to hide in villages and forests, then reappeared under assumed names. Identity papers were destroyed; false papers, fabricated papers, or, most often, no papers at all, were common. HIAS operations set up for DP work in Germany and Austria at the end of 1945 were the largest in the history of the organization in any one country, and they kept growing with the flood of refugees streaming out of Poland and Romania.

HIAS offices functioned in Hoechst, Frankfurt, Munich, Foehrenwald, Stuttgart, Berlin, Bremen, Hanover, Regensburg, Baden-Baden, Vienna, Linz, and Salzburg, with HIAS representatives stationed in the camps themselves. Besides Germany, HIAS worked in France, Italy, and Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. HIAS functioned in Shanghai until 1950, helping refugees who had escaped eastward from Nazi-occupied Europe to immigrate to Australia, the Americas, and Europe.

From 1945 to 1951, HIAS sponsored and assisted a total 167,450 emigrants: 79,675 of these immigrated to the U.S.; 24,049 to the British Commonwealth; 24,806 to Latin America; and 38,920 to Israel and other countries.

Evacuation of Jews from Muslim Countries; Hungary; Cuba; Czechoslovakia; Poland

Since 1950, HIAS' activities have closely mirrored world events. In 1956, HIAS helped relocate Jews fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and evacuated the Jewish community of Egypt after their expulsion during the Sinai Campaign. During the Cuban Revolution, HIAS set up operations in Miami to rescue the Jews of Cuba.

During the 1960s, HIAS rescued Jews from Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya and arranged with Morocco's King Hassan for the evacuation of his country's huge Jewish community to France and, eventually, Israel. Of almost one million Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, about 80,000 were resettled by HIAS.

In 1965, HIAS was instrumental in the passage of an immigration law that finally replaced the National Origins Quota, eliminating decades of ethnic admission policies for the US. In 1968, HIAS came to the aid of Czechoslovakia's Jews after the suppression of the "Prague Spring," and to Poland's Jews after pogroms racked that country.

In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, HIAS worked with refugees from Southeast Asia. In 1977, HIAS helped evacuate the Jews of Ethiopia, which culminated in several airlifts to Israel. In close coordination with Israel, HIAS played a central role in rescuing Jews from Syria and Lebanon. In 1979, the overthrow of the Shah in Iran precipitated a slow but steady trickle of Jews escaping the theocracy of that country, home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.

The Soviet Jewry Exodus

Beginning in the mid-1960s, HIAS returned to the work initiated at its founding – assisting immigrants escaping Russia with their arrival and resettlement needs in the U.S. Close to a century later, a new Jewish exodus from the previous Russian Empire – now the USSR – started with a trickle of departures. Throughout the entire era of Soviet Jewish exodus, HIAS' operations centered around two beliefs: 1) Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people and 2) emigrants have the right to live together with extended family in their country of choice.

On December 3, 1966, Premier Alexei Kosygin said in Paris that “if there are some families divided by the war who want to meet their relatives outside of the USSR, or even to leave the USSR, we shall do all in our power to help them, and there is no problem.” In stark contrast to the premier’s words, the Soviet authorities did everything in their power to prevent Jews from leaving the country, implementing anti-Semitic, anti-immigration campaigns that included harassment, economic pressure, and an increasingly bureaucratic visa-application process. These methods deterred many would-be applicants, who abandoned the process once their initial applications were denied.

During the early years of exodus, the number of departures depended largely on the status of the United States-Soviet relationship and on financial pragmatism. In hopes of achieving economic benefits from the US, the Soviet government sporadically opened its emigration gates, sometimes even in contradiction of its own legislation. Thus, despite the “Diploma Tax” that was instituted in December 1972 and required exiting Jews to pay for the higher education they received in the USSR, the government allowed two groups of 900 persons each to leave shortly thereafter without paying. By March 1973, the tax was revoked in the face of extreme pressure from the international public community and the Soviets’ fear of not being awarded Most Favored Nation status by the U.S. In December 1973, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked trade agreements with the USSR to freedom of its citizens to emigrate, was passed in the U.S. Congress by a landslide. This legislation was an indicator of the degree to which the Soviet Jewry struggle had won the moral support of the West and had spurred the American Jewish community into action. The Soviet authorities were now subject to criticism not only from scattered groups of dissidents and refuseniks, but from tens of thousands protesting in front of Soviet embassies and consulates around the globe. Over time, these combined factors impacted the numbers of the Jews leaving the Soviet Union.

HIAS was involved from the beginning of the Jewish exodus from the USSR. In December 1966, HIAS organized a campaign to encourage American Jews to invite their Soviet relatives to join them in the U.S. The Soviet Union initially allowed limited exit visas to the U.S., though eventually, regardless of their final destination, Soviet Jews who received permission to emigrate were granted exit visas only to Israel.

Early on, Vienna became the first stop for all Jews exiting the USSR. There they were greeted by a representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and by HIAS, and were asked to determine their final destination. Those who were going to Israel were assisted by JAFI; those headed for the U.S. or elsewhere were processed by HIAS. After a short stay in Vienna, those destined for the U.S. were transferred to Rome, where they were processed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

In August 1972, HIAS obtained U.S. parole status for hundreds of Russian refugees waiting in Rome, cutting their transit time from six months to six weeks. Parole made immigration possible without delay for all members of a family unit reunifying with their relatives in the U.S., who were formally considered their “sponsors.”

In an effort to alleviate the financial burden on communities accepting increased numbers of Russian refugees, HIAS negotiated with the U.S. State Department a one-time $300 per-capita grant for Russians who emigrated from Europe to the U.S. after January 1974. HIAS passed along the full amount to each resettlement agency.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the years of perestroika and glasnost, the political face of the Soviet Union changed, as well as the course of Jewish history. Jews were now free to assemble, to worship – and to leave the country. But as the number of emigrants swelled in Rome, significant backlogs developed and the time between arrival in Rome and the HIAS interview grew to three weeks. By the summer of 1989 overall processing time took 70 – 80 days. This situation was further aggravated by the denial of refugee status by the INS for an increasing number of Soviet Jewish applicants.

In Washington, then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh announced a new policy of unilateral review of all previously denied cases, using “the most generous standards for that review.” The effect was immediate: INS began its review of the denied caseload in October, resulting in the overturning of more than 95 percent of the previous denials. As a result, the percentage of denials dropped from 40 to 2, eliminating the backlog.

Parallel activity was taking place in Congress, as this issue was brought to members’ attention by HIAS and the Council of Jewish Federations (the pre-cursor to the United Jewish Communities). In November 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Morrison-Lautenberg Amendment, which established that a member of a category group “may establish a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion […] by asserting a credible basis for concern about the possibility of such persecution.” This amendment, which has been renewed a number of times, is still in force today and greatly facilitates processing for refugees from the FSU, Indochina, and Iran.

In late September 1989, the State Department announced a major change in processing refugee admission for Soviet applicants. With a decreasingly hostile environment inside the USSR, the U.S. instituted a system that allowed Soviet Jews to apply and remain in country while waiting for notification of status. From autumn 1989, those seeking family reunification in the U.S. applied for immigration processing at the U.S. Consulate in Moscow.

In 1994, HIAS opened an office in Moscow and, in 2003, one in Kiev. Today, these offices closely monitor conditions in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and assist refugees bound for resettlement in the U.S. and other countries.

Overall, during the 40 years of Soviet Jewish emigration, HIAS assisted more than 400,000 Soviet Jews to immigrate to the U.S.

HIAS Today

Today HIAS continues to provide rescue and refuge for persecuted Jews around the world. However, as the population of Jewish refugees has diminished in recent years, HIAS also has directed its resources to assist refugees and immigrants of all backgrounds, helping many reunite with their families and resettle in the United States. HIAS also advocates in Congress on policies affecting refugees and immigrants.

Drawing strongly on the Jewish tradition, values, and texts – the Torah (Hebrew Bible) says 36 times in 36 different ways that it is necessary to help the stranger and a core Jewish belief is that it is necessary to “fix the world” (tikkun olam, in Hebrew) – HIAS provides services without regard for religion, nationality, or ethnic background.

Depending on location, these services can include trauma counseling, art therapy, legal advice, and humanitarian assistance, among others. Working with the U.S. government, the government of Israel, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and a host of non-governmental organizations, HIAS assists refugees from more than 20 countries with U.S. resettlement and follows through with immigrant integration and citizenship programs.

HIAS currently operates in the following places:

  • United States. HIAS helps resettle refugees from trouble spots around the world through a national affiliate network of Jewish agencies; provides extensive integration and citizenship programs for Russian speaking refugees and immigrants; advocates for immigration laws with its network of Jewish, interfaith, and other partners in Washington, DC and nationwide; connects each generation of Jews by reuniting those long separated and through educational initiatives such as, a social networking site enabling newcomers to tell their immigration stories; provides scholarships to refugees; and offers an advocacy and social forum through HIAS Young Leaders.
  • Europe. In Moscow and Kiev, HIAS helps Jews and others from 43 countries receive protection and seek asylum or resettlement;
  • Middle East. HIAS helps Jewish and other religious minorities from Iran come to the U.S.; in Israel, HIAS provides scholarships for those who have recently immigrated to the Jewish state and assists with Israeli government efforts to protect the population of refugees arriving from Africa; HIAS does resettlement work for refugees of the Syrian Civil War in Jordan;[2]
  • Africa. In Chad, HIAS provides trauma counseling and social services in five of that country’s camps for refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan and facilitates relocation for those who need additional protection; in Kenya, HIAS’ trauma counseling and resettlement operations focus on the needs of the most vulnerable of the 250,000 people displaced by conflicts in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo;
  • Latin America. HIAS provides full-service counseling, legal services, and humanitarian assistance for Colombian refugees fleeing to Ecuador and Venezuela; facilitates the resettlement and integration of refugees in Argentina and Uruguay.


1. Bazarov, Valery. “Racing with Death: HIAS (HICEM) Lisbon Files (1940-1945).” Avotaynu, 20, no 4 (2004): 23-7.

2. _______ “Out of Trap: HIAS French Files.” Avotaynu, 21, no 3 (2005): 18-21.

3. _______ “Schmolka and Steiner: Return of the Heroes.” In The 120 HIAS Stories, ed. Kathleen Anderson, Morris Ardoin and Margarita Zilberman, 275-9. New York: HIAS, 2006.

4. _______ “In the Cross-Hairs.” Passages, The Magazine of HIAS, Spring 2007: 22-7.

5. _______ “HIAS and HICEM in the system of Jewish relief organizations in Europe, 1933-1941.” East European Jewish Affairs, 39, no 1, April 2009: 69-78.

6. Lazin, Fred A. The Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics. New York: Lexington Books, 2005.

7. Sanders, Ronald. Shores of Refuge: Hundred Years of Jewish Emigration. New York: Henry Holt & Co.: 1988.

8. Schulze, Kristen. The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict. Second revised and expanded edition. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press: 2009.

9. Spiegel, Philip. Triumph Over Tyranny. New York: Devora Publishing: 2008.

10. Szulc, Tad. The Secret Alliance: The Extraordinary Story of the Rescue of the Jews Since World War II. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1991.

11. Wischnitzer, Mark. To Dwell in Safety: The Story of Jewish Migration Since 1800. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America: 1948.

12. _________ Visas to Freedom: The History of HIAS. New York: The World Publishing Company: 1956.

External links

  • HIAS web site
  • Hias Help web site for persians
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