Crossing Borders with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

A personal history of what HIAS really stands for

Shortly before his murderous rampage against Jews and migrants, Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, posted online: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t stand by and watch my people get slaughtered.” Reading this, I was astonished and profoundly disturbed. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — in my professional, but also personal, experience — is an entirely benevolent organization, devoted to assisting refugees and other displaced people in dire circumstances. While I understand that a person living in a world of alternative facts and conspiracy theories, insecure about his place in the world and inundated by anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic messages, might conclude that Hebrew juxtaposed with immigrant aid makes HIAS an appropriate focus for hate-filled violence, my life tells the truth that he sought to eradicate.

In June 1949, my father and I escaped from our native Hungary across that country’s recently fortified border with Austria — through a minefield between two rows of barbed wire, under guard towers and searchlights. It was our third attempt to cross Hungary’s borders. A few weeks earlier, we had been captured and briefly detained when crossing into Czechoslovakia. During a second try, this time on the Austrian border, we were forced to turn back when our guide — a coyote, in current western hemisphere terms — was uncertain of the path through the minefield.

We persisted. We reached Austrian territory in the Soviet occupation zone adjacent to Hungary, where we had to wait until daylight to be transported to safer ground in Vienna’s British sector. We rode there in the back of a truck, hidden under bales of hay, and flanked by crates of chickens.

On foot in the city, a physical disability made it difficult for me to keep pace with my father and our guide. I was some distance behind them, in the middle of a busy intersection, when the traffic signal turned red. They did not look back, and I was left behind. A British military policeman guiding traffic stopped me, and since I could not understand English and neither of us was very proficient in German, he deposited me in a nearby police station. He did so, I later realized, for my protection; my limp and small size for my age must have made me look frail and vulnerable. I was eleven.

I was held in an empty cell for what seemed like a very long time, but was probably just a few hours. The cell resembled a dungeon of the sort depicted in movies set in earlier centuries. Periodically, a guard alternating between English and approximate German tried to reassure me, but the only word I understood was “HIAS.”

Eventually my father arrived with a representative of HIAS, who escorted us to the refugee reception center in what had been Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital. There, a large ward was occupied by several hundred people. Blankets draped on strings partitioned the space into tiny “rooms.” One of these became our home — for three months for me, and about eight for my father.

In September 1949, I was driven to an airfield in Vienna and flown to Munich (in the American sector of occupied Germany), and from there to Paris, in a larger airplane filled with Americans. I was sent to a boarding school known to me then as “Paris English College,” but which was actually the collège (middle school) section of the École Privée Fides, on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais in the 7th arrondissement, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower and the Champs de Mars. Established in 1934, École Fides is still very much in existence, now with three campuses in Paris. My placement there, as I found out many years later, was arranged by HIAS; my father had told the HIAS worker that we hoped to join family in Los Angeles, and that some exposure to English would be helpful for me. (Like many Holocaust survivors, my father steadfastly refused to talk about any of his experiences directly or indirectly related to it, to the extent that he would not even respond to specific questions.)

I lived at the collège for almost a year. Since I had nowhere else to go, I lived there continuously, except during Christmas vacation, when a classmate’s family invited me to join them on their ski vacation. I stayed in the collège through the summer of 1950, because the outbreak of war in Korea delayed my entry visa to the United States.

Many years later, during a research stay in Paris, I made an appointment to visit the school’s office, hoping to fill some gaps in my memory about my time there and to express my gratitude to École Fides for accommodating a refugee child without money or French. I was received by the director himself. He knew nothing of my time there, of course, but had organized for my dossier to be brought up from the archives, in anticipation of my visit. I learned much of interest as we leafed through the dossier. One of my questions was about the arrangement that had allowed me to live in the school for nearly two months after it was shuttered for the long summer break, with no one but a custodian present. A handwritten note, attached to a yellowing sheet headed <Heisler, M. O.>, indicated that HIAS, with the collaboration of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had arranged for me to stay in Paris until my visa for entry to the US arrived. (The committee is now widely known as JDC, but for those of us who had survived the war and the Holocaust, it was “the Joint” — a fount of tins of powdered eggs, margarine and crackers, provided for a year or more after the war.) HIAS had also arranged for a retired art teacher, of Hungarian origin, to take me on excursions on Sundays, when other children were visited by family or returned home. My life-long passion for the visual arts began during those biweekly Sunday afternoons at the Louvre and other museums and galleries with “Madame Olga.” Unfortunately, I learned little or no English at Paris English College, but did become reasonably proficient in French.

HIAS reentered my life in October 1956, during the thirteen days of the Hungarian revolution. We had received word in Los Angeles that my father’s older sister was trying to escape to Austria — along with her husband, and their recently married (and pregnant) daughter and son-in-law. I was two months into my first year in university, when my father asked me to go to Vienna to find our family. Once there, I sought out a HIAS office, and from them learned that the whole party had reached Austria safely, and were in a holding camp for newly arrived refugees. Although I was unable to meet them, I was assured by HIAS that they would soon be housed in Vienna and then, if permits to continue to the United States were obtained, HIAS would arrange their transfer to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey — the reception center for all the Hungarian refugees entering the U.S. My paternal grandmother in Los Angeles was greatly comforted by a note on HIAS letterhead, assuring her that the path of her daughter’s family to the United States would be monitored by the same organization that had overseen my father’s and my passage to America.

In the 60 years since then, HIAS has assisted people displaced by conflict or persecution from half the countries in the world. Between 1991 and 2010, in the course of my longitudinal, interview-based study of mostly Muslim migrants in France from North and sub-Saharan Africa, several people indicated that they had received help in some form from “la HIAS,” but virtually none knew that the H stands for Hebrew.

When my head began to clear after the Pittsburgh murders, I sent a check to HIAS — the first in many years, but not the last.

Martin O. Heisler is a Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. His website, on which he blogs occasionally, is here.

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