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Abraham Shoenfeld Papers

 Collection
Identifier: P-884

Scope and Content Note

This collection was generated primarily in connection with two of Shoenfeld’s activities: fiction and memoir writing and American Jewish Committee (AJC) investigative work. The types of materials present include reports, manuscripts, notes, photographs, reel-to-reel tapes, correspondence, printed ephemera, government documents and books.

His writing, both autobiographical and fiction in Series I, draws from his experience as a detective in the 1910s and 1920s New York crime world. These writings are what the collection has to offer on his years with the New York Kehillah, in addition to his oral history interview with Arthur Goren. There are no known materials in this collection created by Shoenfeld during the Kehillah time itself. His weekly vice reports for Kehillah are in the Judah L. Magnes Papers (see Related Material).

His AJC work is documented in Series II by his daily investigative reports, which represent more than a third of the entire collection, and by the anti-Semitic literature in Series III and in the Subject Files of Series II, which he collected in connection with AJC investigations.

The largest gap in documentation is the period between his 1920s writings and the 1948 start of his AJC reports. There is a notable lack during the World War II years, with the exception of correspondence regarding his interest in going into the Army Administration in 1943 (Box 2, Folder 8), a journalist thanking him for information in 1944 (Box 5B, Folder 1), and a letter from fellow undercover investigator, Avedis Boghos Derounian (alias John Roy Carlson), at the Friends of Democracy (Box 7, Folder 3).

Dates

  • 1892, 1920-1978, 2010
  • Majority of material found within 1927 - 1964

Language of Materials

The collection is in English. A few items are in German, Yiddish and French.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers by permission of the Director of Library and Archives of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Use Restrictions

Information concerning the literary rights may be obtained from the Director of Library and Archives of the American Jewish Historical Society. Users must apply in writing for permission to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection. For more information contact:



American Jewish Historical Society

Center for Jewish History

15 West 16th Street

New York, NY 10011



E-mail:

info@ajhs.org

Biographical Note

Private investigator and writer, Abraham (Abe) Herman Shoenfeld, was born on April 24, 1891 to Meyer and Dora Shoenfeld, Hungarian Jews. Because his father was a political and labor organizer, Abraham grew up surrounded by major political figures and labor leaders. The Shoenfelds lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and in 1899, Meyer, with aid from the Baron de Hirsch Fund, helped form a New Jersey agricultural colony, now known as Kenilworth, where he resettled his own family and other Lower East Side Jewish families, mostly those involved in the tailoring business.1 Abe Shoenfeld attended P.S. 20, graduating in 1905, and entered Stuyvesant High School, but dropped out at the end of his first year at age 15.2

Young Shoenfeld developed an intimate knowledge of the Jewish criminal subculture on the Lower East Side. He first became an investigator for John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Bureau of Social Hygiene, under George Kneeland in 1912, and on the foundation of Shoenfeld’s research into New York City’s vice and crime scene, Kneeland wrote the report, “Commercialized Prostitution in New York City,” published by the Bureau.

In the wake of the media stir caused by the July 1912 murder of Herman Rosenthal, Judah L. Magnes hired Shoenfeld, based on his work for Kneeland and his growing expertise on the crime world, to be Chief Investigator for the Bureau of Social Morals of the New York Kehillah. The Kehillah, also known as the “Jewish Community of New York City,” had been founded in response to New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham’s controversial statement in 1908 that Jews were responsible for half the city’s crimes. The aim of the Kehillah’s Bureau of Social Morals, overseen by Magnes, Jacob Schiff, Felix Warburg, William Salomon, Adolph Lewisohn, Louis Marshall and Samuel Greenbaum, was to diminish Jewish criminal involvement by providing criminal intelligence to politicians and the police department and pressuring for action to be taken based on this intelligence.3

Shoenfeld, together with a team of police officers and a network of informers, infiltrated criminal organizations and establishments. Undercover for his first year, Shoenfeld posed as a writer in order to gather information directly from the criminals. He and his team created an extensive index card file of details on individuals, and he wrote voluminous reports, documenting in detail Jewish criminal culture and social problems from 1912 to 1917 for the wealthy overseers of Kehillah. After 1917, he conducted vice work on a less formal basis, no longer paid a salary by Magnes and without the help of a regular team. He informally passed information along to the police.4

Shoenfeld was simultaneously giving information to the Narcotics Division of the U.S. Department of Justice between 1912 and 1921. In his unpublished memoirs, he states that he “served the Government from 1912 to April 1964,” but did not receive any direct payment from them.5

In the early 1920s he worked out of a private office at Felshon Service Investigators on Rector Street.6 Following that he began writing and doing “ghost jobs,” the term for “assignments of an ultra-private nature.”7 He wrote the novel The Joy Peddler, which was published in 1927 and incited considerable controversy for its provocative content.

On October 22, 1934, Shoenfeld married Annie Evans, who was 38 at the time.

From 1938 to 1964, Shoenfeld investigated anti-Semitic organizations and individuals for the American Jewish Committee (AJC). In 1938, as part of member Richard Rothschild’s six-point plan and mobilization against Nazi propaganda, the AJC had shifted resources towards investigation of fascist, pro-Nazi organizations and individuals generating virulent anti-Semitic propaganda. Shoenfeld served as the Chief of Investigation under the Legal Division (also known as the Investigative and Fact-Finding Division and the Legal and Fact Finding Division). Shoenfeld coordinated a network of agents who worked undercover within the scrutinized organizations, and he wrote detailed reports for the AJC based on intelligence gathered by his agents and other sources. Some of this information was then utilized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, military intelligence and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.8

Shoenfeld died in Roosevelt Hospital in New York on September 27, 1977.

Footnotes

  1. 1 Personal e-mail correspondence from Ellen James to Rachel Miller, April 15, 2010. In AJHS accession file.
  2. 2 Shoenfeld, Abraham. Draft of New York Crime Buster (The East Side), My Memoirs to 1921. 1962, 1972. p.97; Box 5A; Folder 2.
  3. 3 Goren, Arthur. Saints and Sinners: The Underside of American Jewish History. Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 1988, p.15. Goren, Arthur. New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment, 1908-1922. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
  4. 4 New York City Crime Buster. Box 4-5. Transcript of oral history interview with Shoenfeld conducted by Arthur Goren, 1965. Box 5A; Folder 10-11.
  5. 5 New York City Crime Buster; p. 88; quote from p.119; Box 5A; Folder 2.
  6. 6 Transcript of oral history interview with Shoenfeld conducted by Arthur Goren, p.204; Box 5A; Folder 11.
  7. 7 New York City Crime Buster, Box 4; Folder 5.
  8. 8 Cohen, Naomi Wiener. Not Free to Desist: The American Jewish Committee, 1906-1966. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972, p.207, 210.

Extent

16.75 Linear Feet (30 manuscript boxes, 3 half-manuscript boxes and 1 card box.)

Overview

Under the employ of the New York Kehillah, detective Abraham Shoenfeld infiltrated and documented Jewish crime rings, prostitution houses and gambling establishments from 1912 to 1917. For the American Jewish Committee from 1938 to 1964, he investigated anti-Semitic organizations and individuals. He also authored a controversial book about the New York crime world, The Joy Peddler, and he was at work on other pieces of fiction and his memoirs. The bulk of his papers consist of investigative reports and research for the American Jewish Committee, his manuscripts, and his collection of anti-Semitic literature.

Acquisition Information

The collection was donated by Sarah Jane Debra Sickles Nishioka and Ellen Sickles James, Shoenfeld’s great nieces (the daughters of his sister Rebecca Green’s daughter, Thelma Sickles), on July 6, 2009. The accession number is 2009.018. Ellen Sickles James added to the collection with a May 24, 2010 mailing of more of Shoenfeld's personal effects, the contents of which are mostly to be found in Box 5B.

Related Material

The criminal reports Shoenfeld wrote for Judah Magnes for his Kehillah investigative work are in the Judah L. Magnes Papers, Collection 3, at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, Israel. The AJHS Library has a copy of the Magnes Papers inventory: Judah Leib Magnes papers, 1890-1948 (incl archives of the New York "Kehillah" 1908-1922), ed. Hadassah Assouline, Jerusalem, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, 1979 (call number Z8535.A7). Shoenfeld's criminal reports should also be on the microfilm of the Magnes Papers at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, OH (MF-1157-1161 Judah L. Magnes. Correspondence, minutes of various committee meetings, reports, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and miscellaneous items pertaining to his numerous activities and interests. New York, NY. 1909-1921. 5 reels; MF-1671-1677 Judah L. Magnes. Correspondence and various miscellaneous material concerning The Kehillah, Palestine, People's Relief Committee, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Jewish Relief Committee. 1910-1918. 7 reels.) The reports may also be available on microfilm at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, CA.

In his memoirs Shoenfeld writes that his research for John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Bureau of Social Hygiene and George Kneeland’s 1913 report, “Commercialized Prostitution in New York City” is in the Bureau of Social Hygiene Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

There may also be materials related to Shoenfeld in the American Jewish Committee Records (RG 347) at the YIVO Center for Jewish Research, New York, NY and at the Jacob Blaustein Library of the American Jewish Committee, New York, NY.

Separated Material

Four large boxes of books were separated into the AJHS Library or donated elsewhere. They included books on undercover investigative work, World War II, anti-Semitism, and international diplomacy, and many were published by the Devin-Adair Publishing Company. Books with any notes in them or author inscriptions to Shoenfeld were kept in the archival collection under Series III: Literature.

Shoenfeld’s John Birch Society publications (American Opinion and society bulletins, 1958-1964), most of which were likely given to Shoenfeld by his investigator known as “W,” were moved to AJHS’s John Birch Society Records, unprocessed as of April 2010.

Only those government documents were kept which Shoenfeld notated or with which he had some discernible or likely research involvement. The rest were discarded. A list of the discarded documents is in the Appendix.
Title
P-884
Status
In Progress
Author
Processed by Rachel Miller as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
Date
© 2010.
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Language of description note
Description is in English.
Edition statement
This version was derived from AbrahamShoenfeld.xml

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

Contact:
15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States