Runaway husbands, desperate families

Runaway husbands, desperate families

YIVO, Jewish Board focus an exhibit on the underside of immigration stories

A view of the Lower East Side. It was not a peaceful place to live. (All photos courtesy Yivo/Jewish Board)
A view of the Lower East Side. It was not a peaceful place to live. (All photos courtesy Yivo/Jewish Board)

More than one thing can be true at one time.

That’s one of the basic truths we learn as we enter adulthood.

It’s one of the basic truths new immigrants learn as they enter this country. Certainly it’s a truth our ancestors learned as they disembarked from the boats that brought them across the Atlantic, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, whose promise was both real and ironic.

The United States was a goldene medina, a golden land, for many of them, or at least for many of their children and grandchildren, at least in comparison to what they left. But it also was a place where hearts and dreams and lives were broken.

Evidence is provided by the existence of the National Desertion Bureau, which sounds like the title of a dysfunctional science fiction short story but in fact was the name of an agency created by a predecessor agency of the New York City-based Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. YIVO is presenting an exhibit, “Runaway Husbands, Desperate Families: The Story of the National Desertion Bureau,” which will run through the fall. (See below.)

(Although both the Jewish Board and YIVO are in New York, there is a strong link to New Jersey. When husbands ran away, the whole country was their oyster, at least in theory, but often they ended up in New Jersey, which might have seemed less exotic but certainly was closer and easier to get to.)

These two men were among the runaway husbands whose pictures were posted in the Forward.

Gavin Beinart-Smollan is the Jewish Board’s public historian, and Jeffrey Brenner is its CEO. In a Zoom call, the two explained the history of the organization, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, and how it came to develop the Desertion Bureau.

Mr. Beinart-Smollan — a graduate student working toward a doctorate in history at NYU — had to begin his description of the Desertion Bureau with an explanation of the meaning of “public history.” It “can be anything that’s outside the walls of academia,” he said. “Museums, archives, historic sites, and so on. This project is particularly interesting because it is inside a social service agency — not a place where historians typically work.”

In this case, though, the social service agency — the Jewish Board — “has been wonderfully interested in and invested in learning its own history, both to celebrate its anniversary, but also for an operationalized useful purpose.”

That purpose is: “How can we understand the past and use the past as a way to improve our services in the present and the future?”

Both Mr. Beinart-Smollan and Dr. Brenner know that although immigrants’ ethnicities and the countries they leave have changed, the issue of immigration remains a deeply divisive one, as does the question of poverty, both as a single issue and as it entwines with immigration. That understanding undergirds their work, they both said.

Dr. Brenner — who is not an academic but a physician — said that his interest in questions of poverty and immigration, both now and then, began with the 20 years he spent as an obstetrician in Camden. “I saw all the problems that poverty brings,” he said. “When you deliver babies and work with their families, you know them well.”

To get back to the Jewish Board, Mr. Beinart-Smollan said that it began as the United Hebrew Charities when it was founded in 1874, and it has incorporated other agencies as it went through many name changes. It created the National Desertion Bureau in 1911, in response to a pressing need.

That pressing need, which started in the 1880s and intensified through the first two decades of the next century, was for orphanages; not for children who were literal orphans, but for kids with fathers who were gone — sometimes dead but oftentimes vanished — and mothers who were unable to cope and could not feed or care for their children.

That’s how Daughters of Miriam in Clifton, among many other institutions, began. It was first envisioned as a home for needy Jewish children in 1913, and opened, in Paterson, in 1921. It was only much later that it turned into a nursing home, after operating for some time as both.

Orphanages were phased out, Mr. Beinart-Smollan said, “when we realized that instead of putting children in orphanages, we could make weekly welfare payments, and keep the families intact.”

But that’s getting way ahead of the story.

“In about 1900, the organization that became the Jewish Board realized that the problem of family abandonment needed a bigger solution” — bigger, that is, than putting children in orphanages, traumatizing them (a word that was not used at the time but was true nonetheless) instead of finding a systemic cure, Dr. Brenner said.

This application provides details about a runaway husband.

The Jewish Board and its workers started to apply pressure that eventually led toward the creation of the New York State family court system, he continued. “Prior to this time, if a father abandoned his family, if he didn’t contribute to the family financially, there was no infrastructure to force him to.

“So the family courts literally were invented because legislation was passed in the early 1900s, and our organization was intrinsic in pushing for it, because we were seeing all the problems.

“The other thing that we did was to make it a felony to abandon your family.”

That is, of course, an overstatement. The board could not create legislation, but it could lobby for it successfully. “A law was passed in New York State and around the country to make it a felony to abandon your family,” Dr. Brenner said. “The reason it got set as a felony is that if it’s a felony, you can extradite people across state lines.”

Still, there was a problem. “To extradite someone, you have to find him. And how do you find him?

“The National Desertion Bureau was created as an outgrowth of this work to find the missing husbands.”

Women would go to the bureau to file reports about their missing husbands, and the bureau would run advertisements featuring these men in the Yiddish-language Forward, which was the national Jewish newspaper. “The Forward would run galleries of missing husbands, with pictures of them, and descriptions of them and the families they’d left underneath the pictures,” Mr. Beinart-Smollan said.

Mr. Isaacson and his “alleged paramour” seem to have fled to Newark.

“It became popular, and people all over the country would read them, see people they knew in it, and report them. Then paperwork would be filed to get them charged, extradited, and brought back to the tenement. Hundreds and hundreds of them were found and brought back — and the records about this are there at YIVO,” Dr. Brenner said.

Although most of the deserters were men, some were women, Mr. Beinart-Smollan said. Most happened in the United States, but “there were many international cases as well. The pattern of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, when men would come first and send for their wives, offered a way for men to abandon their wives. It was exacerbated by the First World War — in many cases the families weren’t separated by desertion but by war.” Sometimes the bureau could help those families reunite.

When men deserted, they could go wherever and do whatever and be whoever they chose, at least in theory. Often, they spread out across the country; often they stayed closer to home, just far enough away to feel safe. “It was not uncommon for a man to run to Newark when the woman was back home in the Lower East Side,” Mr. Smollan said.

“The desertion bureau had connections with agencies across the U.S. and across the world — in Europe and South America. One thing we can learn from these files is the intense collaboration between social service agencies to track down these men — some of them were very slippery and managed to evade the authorities.”

Some of the men who deserted their families left Jewish life behind, he reported; others did not. Sometimes men would leave to have relationships with non-Jewish women, and sometimes, at least according to the reports, abandonment was because one of the partners was Jewish and the other was not. “We always have to read these notes with a grain of salt, but that’s the way they reported it to the agency,” Mr. Beinart-Smollan said.

The bureau was established to work with Jews, although it willingly helped anyone who asked for it. “It was spun out specifically to help Jewish immigrants because United Hebrew Charities saw the issue of desertion as one of the foundational social issues of the time,” Dr. Brenner said. “It was Jews helping Jews.” The founders didn’t want the general society, which was not particularly welcoming to Jewish immigrants anyway, to see desertion as a big problem for Jews. “They didn’t want to call attention to it,” Dr. Brenner said. So they named it the National Desertion Bureau, which is odd but bland, “and in the end it did serve that purpose,” working with many non-Jews, he said.

“In 1954, it renamed itself the Family Location Service, at least in part because the terminology of desertion went out of fashion. It did more to reunite families separated during the Holocaust, not through desertion.” Eventually the bureau “petered out — desertion was very much a first-generation problem.”

In the 1950s, the bureau sent its files to YIVO; historians have worked with them — Mr. Beinart-Smollan said that Dr. Annette Igra of Carleton College, who has done important research with them, will speak at the exhibit’s opening — and now some will be on display there.

The Jewish Board is creating a database of approximately 18,000 cards, Mr. Beinart-Smollan said; people will be able to look for their family history and might understand far more about the stories that shaped their great-grandparents’ lives, and eventually their own.

YIVO plans to digitize the full case file — the file held far more information than the cards — and to make it available online as well. “It all will be free and available to everyone,” Mr. Beinart-Smollar said.

YIVO received the desertion bureau’s files in 1954 because of the deep passion the extraordinary public intellectual Max Weinrich, who was, among many other things, YIVO’s research director, had for rebuilding the Jewish family, the institution’s executive director, Jonathan Brent, said.

Dr. Weinrich, who founded YIVO in Vilna, was out of Lithuania with his young son, Uriel, in 1941, when his prescient colleagues told him not to return, Dr. Brent said. Instead, the Weinriches were able to get to the United States before the war — his wife, Regina, and their other son joined them — “and when he registered the total destruction of Eastern European Jewry, he became desperate to do all he could to rebuild Jewish life in America, along the Eastern European secular model that YIVO represented. It was a different task than building Jewish life in Israel, or building the more reclusive communities here, but he saw this as YIVO’s mission.

Morris Beck fled Annie — they were incompatible, the card tells us — and was discovered in Paterson.

“So this collection of material, he saw, was really important to understanding not just the trauma of the Holocuast, but the trauma of immigration. The trauma of having the father come and spend years in America trying to earn money, and then bringing the rest of the family over.” Often that family fell apart. More trauma.

“My family was one such,” Dr. Brent said. “My grandfather was a blacksmith. He came over in 1904, purportedly to escape the Russian/Japanese war, but left my grandmother in Kyiv, along with the children.

“He was among those men who thought of American as the goldene medina, the place where you could be and do and prosper.

“He wasn’t like the men in the Desertion Bureau. He eventually brought the family to Chicago. But I can tell you that the cost to the family was tremendous dislocation and psychological trauma. Because it was nothing like the Holocaust, we gloss over it, but the National Desertion Bureau files show how deep and wrenching coming to American actually was.

“I think that there should be a good book based on this. Not the ‘World of Our Fathers’” — Irving Howe’s 1976 magnum opus about Jewish immigration — “but the ‘World Without Our Fathers,’ a bookend to Howe’s picture of American immigrant Jewish life, a much darker vision.

“Weinrich was acutely aware that this issue had to be addressed, and the recourse for him was information about how to develop programs at YIVO that could benefit the fractured psyches of so many Jewish immigrants. How to deal with fatherlessness, with abandonment, with the nostalgia for the old country that many people retained even though the old country would have killed them.”

Harris Beiling returned to Orange; no word on if the reconciliation was successful.

Now, almost 70 years later, “I think that the opening of this archive and the exhibition is going to be a watershed moment,” Dr. Brent said. “All of a sudden, these stories are going to come out. It’s a story about Jewish life in America that people didn’t want to talk about.

Similarly, Dr. Brenner acknowledges that the files tell fascinating stories of real people’s lives, but he feels that they have a deeper meaning. “The idea of Jews having been model immigrants who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps is not true,” he said. “People’s lives were complicated. They were not perfect. The files track problems very similar to what I saw in Camden.”

Jewish immigrants were imperfect. Jewish life had to be rebuilt; some builders erected strong structures, and others put up shacks that toppled. But we’re still here, and once we look back, we’ll be better able to look and move ahead. This YIVO exhibit is a start.

What: An exhibit called “Runaway Husbands, Desperate Families: The Story of the National Desertion Bureau”

Where: YIVO, at the Center for Jewish History at 15 West 16th Street in Manhattan

When: From June 17 through the fall

What else: The exhibit opens on June 17 with a reception at 7 p.m., featuring a panel talk by YIVO’s senior academic adviser and exhibition director, Eddy Portnoy, Professor Annette Igra of Carleton College, and Dr. Annie Polland, president of the Tenement Museum.

The exhibit is free; to register, go to and click on Events.”

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