Tag Archives: Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS

An immigration obstacle course

One example of the 1941 letter informing people that they would need to start their visa application process over again. Click on image to expand it.

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

Notes from the underground

On board the SS Marine Flasher. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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

A chance family reunion

Camp residents at Feldafing. Images courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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

Tired of waiting

David Gorfein traveled to America on board R.M.S. Olympic.

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

‘An iron will’

View of a ceiling in the Palazzo Ottolenghi. Courtesy of La Stampa

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’

Effectively stateless

Records of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

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

2016: the year in review concluded

At the beginning of 2017, Vita Brevis can boast 1,177,549 page views: while individual readers have surely read multiple articles on a given visit, that million+ reader count is still impressive!

vita_brevis_bannerVita Brevis reached its one-millionth page view on 7 July, some two-and-a-half years after the blog’s launch on 10 January 2014:

“And what do [its contributing authors] write about?

“We write about what interests us, as researchers, as professional genealogists, as editors, as archivists. Sometimes the topic is our own research interests; sometimes we offer tips from our experience as a beginning, an intermediate, or an expert researcher; and sometimes we describe an aspect of our work, here in Boston or elsewhere as part of an NEHGS education program. Continue reading 2016: the year in review concluded

An unexpected discovery

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Children and staff at the Chateau de Mehoncourt near Le Mans (detail).

Recently, the New England Historic Genealogical Society participated in “Free Fun Friday,” a yearly summer event sponsored by the Highland Street Foundation for no-cost admission to cultural venues in Massachusetts.  A couple who attended the event at NEHGS on August 19 sat down at the “Archivist for a Day” table that I was manning with co-workers and asked if they could quickly write some notes before their consultation with Research Services. The husband inquired about my department, the Jewish Heritage Center (JHC) at NEHGS, and mentioned that his family was Jewish and that his uncle had actually been a rabbi. Continue reading An unexpected discovery

ICYMI: Useful databases at AJHS-NEA

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 25 April 2014. Today, AJHS-NEA is known as the Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS.]

garner-400As the American Jewish Historical Society, New England Archives (AJHS–NEA) has only recently formed a strategic partnership with the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), anyone interested in New England Jewish history or genealogy may want to know about several databases and collections that might be specifically useful for genealogical research. They include the following:

The Records of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Boston (HIAS). The Boston office of HIAS was chartered in 1904 and operated autonomously from the national office in New York, even after their merger in 1916. Continue reading ICYMI: Useful databases at AJHS-NEA

Crossing Paths: Two Stories of Buchenwald

U.S. Army troops in Germany, 1945. Photograph by Herbert Gorfinkle. From the Papers of Herbert Gorfinkle, P-904 at the American Jewish Historical Society-New England Archives.
U.S. Army troops in Germany, 1945. Photograph by Herbert Gorfinkle. From the Papers of Herbert Gorfinkle, P-904 at the American Jewish Historical Society-New England Archives.

April 11, 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp. In commemoration of this day, the American Jewish Historical Society–New England Archives (AJHS–NEA) is honoring the memory of two men who were present at Buchenwald for the liberation, and whose papers are in our archives.[1]

As an archive with a very specific mission (to collect and preserve the records of the Jewish communities of Greater Boston and New England), AJHS–NEA has many collections that are connected by family relationships. Continue reading Crossing Paths: Two Stories of Buchenwald