From the Philadelphia Jewish Archives: Friend-Finding Service for Refugees

The task of acclimating to a new environment can be daunting for anyone relocating or settling in a new city or country. In addition to establishing a home, finding work, accessing health care and other services, and possibly learning a new language, developing friendships is an important part of feeling connected to a new community. In an increasingly technologically-dependent world, social networking tools and friend finder apps like Wiith, Hey! VINA, LykeMe, and Meetup can make easy work of connecting to like-minded individuals with similar interests. The challenges associated with establishing a social network in an unfamiliar place are certainly not new.

Recently, while processing and cataloging the records of the Philadelphia based social service agency Jewish Family Service held in the Special Collections Research Center, I discovered a card file containing profiles of WWII refugees. The profile cards were created by the Philadelphia Refugee Resettlement Committee, a committee established in February 1937 by the Jewish Welfare Society (later renamed the Jewish Family Service) to support the economic and social adjustment of individuals and families displaced by the war.

The Refugee Resettlement Committee saw one of the most basic social skills—the ability to make friends—as a necessity for the positive adjustment of refugees arriving in Philadelphia. To aid this process, the committee created a service staffed by volunteer “friendly visitors.” The committee would interview these “new Americans” after their arrival, creating a profile card summarizing the individual or family’s background and social preferences. Volunteers were then matched with refugees based on shared interests in the hopes of fostering a friendship.

Lauer family profile card
Lauer family profile card, 1939

Max and Fridericka Lauer and their two sons were just one of the many families who were matched with Refugee Resettlement Committee volunteers between 1938 and 1941. The Lauers’ profile card indicates the eldest son, Lothar, immigrated to Philadelphia in September 1938 and enrolled as a student at Temple University prior to his family’s arrival in March the next year. Described as a cultured family, the following excerpt from the Lauers’ profile provides some insight into the challenges they faced in creating a social network on their own:

“Mr. and Mrs. Lauer have always been interested in music, the theatre, the opera–but have been unable to partake of these activities in this country because of a financial inability, and a lack of friends with whom to share these interests. Mrs. Lauer is also interested in bridge but states that the women she has met in her neighborhood are old Jewish women whose sole interest is the house, thus giving her very little in common with them. Mrs. Lauer does not speak English at all, Dr. Lauer speaks quite poorly. It would therefore be necessary to find a German-speaking volunteer for this family.”

–Jessica M. Lydon, Associate Archivist, SCRC

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