Strands of history: HIAS and Rhode Island


Back in my younger days, if I had gone to any Jewish gathering and asked people of any age if they or their family had any connection to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the answer almost certainly would have been “yes.”


Whether it was immigrant parents or grandparents, other relatives or close friends, or perhaps even the person I asked, HIAS had played a role in their resettlement in this country and their acclimation to this strange new environment.

My answer also would have been “yes.” After my parents had secretly left their shtetl in the Ukraine and managed the dangerous trip through Romania, they were directed to the offices of HIAS. Though they had “shiffkarten” (tickets), sent by Mother’s cousins, Sarah and Alter Boyman, they still had to get to Holland and the SS Ryndam.

With help from HIAS, they were able to board the ship on time. And when they debarked at Ellis Island, HIAS was there to maneuver them through the immigration process and speed them on their way – not to cousins in Providence, but to a sister in Minnesota.

Before she married my uncle, Isaiah Segal, my aunt Anna (Katze) worked in the Boston office of HIAS during the Hitler years. She earned a reputation for tenacity and single-minded purpose as she pursued every angle, every avenue, to bring refugees here, find relatives and prevent deportations.

So many Jews and non-Jews in our community have a connection to HIAS and to Jewish Family and Children’s Services. They have stories to tell, and I hope they share them.

The recent tragedy in Pittsburgh brought HIAS unwanted attention as the target of the hate-filled rants of an alt-right murderer. Sadly, the idea that the agency is part of a dark conspiracy is not new. As early as 1905, as Carol Ingall indicated in an article in R.I. Jewish Historical Association’s Notes (Vol.7:7), the Providence Journal published the headline “Undesirable Immigration” over an article that accused HIAS of being part of a worldwide conspiracy to flood this country with Hebrews. (Another article depicted Jewish customs and certain religious practices as bizarre and outlandish.) 

That early vilification of HIAS is particularly interesting because the agency was established only three years earlier. A similar organization, the Hebrew Sheltering House Association, had been in existence since 1881. Both had their main offices in New York City. They merged and combined their names in 1909 through the efforts of a young man who grew up in the north end of Providence, Samuel Mason.

Mason was 7 when his family arrived in Providence from Kovno, Lithuania, in the 1880s.  Like many immigrants, they chose to settle where they had family and “landsleit” (fellow Jews from the same town or area).

After his schooling, Mason was employed as a bookkeeper. He also became active in community affairs – he was a founder of the YMHA (the forerunner of the Jewish Community Center), an advocate of physical fitness, and a founder of the Touro Guards, a military-style youth organization.

Mason left Rhode Island shortly after the turn of the century. After several forays into the field of  journalism, first in Boston and then New York, Mason found his calling in a totally new field. In 1907, he became general manager of HIAS.

Although he resigned as manager in 1914, he retained his interest in immigration and refugees. He became a member of the HIAS Board of Directors, and in 1917 accepted the chairmanship of the HIAS Committee on Foreign Operations. His work took him first to Japan, then to Manchuria and Vladivostok, Russia. He later traveled to parts of Siberia and the Ural Mountains, where he sought out Jewish refugees stranded by World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Mason rejoined the HIAS executive staff as managing director in November 1918, and even after retiring, he retained a close relationship with the agency he helped to make a symbol of hope.

It should also be noted that the late Norman Tilles, of Pawtucket, served as president of HIAS from 1984 to 1994.

Almost since its founding, HIAS has not turned away non-Jews who needed its help. An undated news article in RIJHA archives tells us that in 1946, a Providence couple approached a Jewish organization, Rhode Island Refugee Service (later part of Jewish Family and Children’s Service), to ask for help in processing immigration papers for Wolfram von Pannewitz, described as an anti-Nazi German Protestant and an aristocrat.

The couple had signed the proper forms, but then found they urgently needed a second affidavit. They also needed a conduit for the money to pay for von Pannewitz’ passage.

The R.I. agency, an affiliate of HIAS, helped them find someone to provide the affidavit and fulfill their other needs. We do not know how large a role HIAS played in von Pannewitz’ rescue. What we do know is that in 1966, he left his entire fortune of $500,000, in equal parts, to Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman and HIAS.

This is the organization that deranged minds have made a target. Long may it prosper.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at or 401-331-1360.