Christopher Russell is a Digital Archives intern for the Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS. He graduated from Oregon State University in 2015 with a B.A. in history and is pursuing his master’s degree in Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston, with a concentration in archive management. At the Oregon State Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC), Christopher worked to scan and digitize portions of the Paul Emmett Collection, and contributed extensive research to the exhibit “Catching Stories: The Oral History Tradition at OSU.” Christopher also wrote for the SCARC blogs “Speaking of History” and “Oregon Multicultural Archives.” At NEHGS, Christopher helps to scan and digitize records from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
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On the train from Washington D.C. to Boston this past summer, I sat next to an immigration lawyer by chance. Thanks to reading immigration case files all the time, I was proud that I could at least identify a few documents and steps in the immigration process he mentioned. I remember remarking how difficult it must be to understand the immigration process and navigate it successfully. Thinking about the encounter in hindsight, and after interning at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center for a year, I realized that the immigration process being difficult, tedious, and full of unexpected challenges isn’t exactly new.
During the Second World War, the U.S. State Department was notorious for its role in impeding the immigration of refugees, particularly Jews. Reflecting fears about German spies, the Department issued a so-called “relatives rule,” which instructed U.S. consuls abroad to deny visas to any applicant with close relatives in Nazi-occupied territory. Continue reading An immigration obstacle course→
When Isaac Gordon and his two younger brothers – Aron and one whose name is unknown – left their village in Poland and fled from the Nazis into the woods, it must have felt like stepping into another world. Polish resistance to the Nazis was fierce during World War II, and the dense Polish forests would be the training grounds, staging areas, and headquarters for all types of partisan groups and underground fighters. Isaac, a cattle-dealer in his early thirties from Vilna (Vilnius), could hardly have felt prepared for the type of life that he and his brothers would be embarking upon when they joined the resistance movement. Continue reading Notes from the underground→
Few things can split apart families like war, and for Jewish families World War II was akin to a tornado: a whirling vortex that broke apart structures and families, generations or centuries old, and scattered any remaining pieces across the countryside. Of those that survived, many could not rebuild the families that had been lost. The family of Leo and Bertha Portnoj, and their three children, was one of those directly in the path of the storm. Continue reading A chance family reunion→
Immigration to the United States has often been a difficult and time-consuming process, and never more so than during the first half of the twentieth century. The immigration laws of the 1920s established a quota system whereby only 2% of the national population of each country could immigrate annually; in effect, this meant that if there were 2 million Germans in the United States, then only 40,000 Germans could come to the United States each year. Continue reading Tired of waiting→
Immigration case records from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) often involve siblings, parents, spouses, children, or other relatives, but in some circumstances people reach out to whomever they can, asking for assistance from anyone they know. Anetta Ottolenghi Cavalieri was from the Piedmonte region of Italy, and had deep family roots there; she had no family or even close friends in the United States. But when Fascism began to make inroads in Italy, she reached out for help to pen pal Bessie Buxton of Peabody, Massachusetts, with whom she had discussed horticulture on and off for several years. Continue reading ‘An iron will’→
Josef Izsack’s case in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) collection only spans one year, but it highlights an interesting tale spanning a longer period than twelve months. Deported after entering Boston as a stowaway in 1946, Izsack came to the United States again the following year, working as an engineer on the Norwegian liner S.S. Fernglen. He was denied the ability to come ashore, though, owing to that previous attempt at entering the United States. An old shrapnel wound became infected and Josef Izsack was forced to spend several months at a marine hospital on Ellis Island. Continue reading Effectively stateless→