Nansen Passports

Passports, visas, residence and work permits, and journalists’ overseas accreditations have been a recurring thread in my work for the last few years*—the inevitable result of writing about an American journalist who spent much of her life in Europe. Working her way through bureaucratic red tape to be sure she had the correct permissions to go where she she needed to be was a fact of life for Sigrid Schultz. She took it seriously, even when the home office back in Chicago thought she was being fussy, because she knew border officials in Europe took proper documentation seriously.

In the years between the two world war, when Schultz was active, official identity documents were important. Millions of people were left stateless by a combination of the changes that reshaped the map of Europe, the revolutions and subsequent civil war in Russia, the Armenian genocide in the former Ottoman Empire and the constant small-scale wars between the new states created by the peacemakers in Versailles. Without valid passports, homeless refugees found it almost impossible to find asylum in countries that were already in economic distress due first to the ravages of war and later to the great depression.

A Norwegian polar explorer turned diplomat named Fridtjof Nansen had successfully organized the repatriation of prisoners of war after World War I. In 1921, the League of Nations named him head of the Office of the High commissioner for Refugees, with a mandate to repatriate the refugees or arrange for them to be distributed between other countries. It soon became clear the many of the refugees couldn’t or wouldn’t return to the countries they had left.

His budget did not allow him to give direct aid to refugees. Instead he proposed a solution that became known as the Nansen passport—a certificate issued by the country in which the homeless had taken refugee that served as both a valid form of identification and a travel permit. The passport did not grant its holders citizenship, but it allowed them them to cross borders in search of work and family members and protected them from deportation.* It was ultimately recognized by 52 countries.

Roughly 450,000 refugees, most of them Russian and Armenian, carried Nansen passports between between 1922 and 1942.

*It also provided governments with a tool for tracking refugees. Identity documents always have a dark side.







And Speaking of X-rays….

Several of you responded to my recent post on the subject with interesting information about the early use of x-rays.*

This story caught my imagination for several reasons that will be obvious to those of you who are regular visitors here on the Margins:

Madame Curie in a mobile x-ray unit ca. 1915

When World War I broke out in 1914, Marie Curie (already a two-time Nobel Prize winner) relocated her precious supply of radium (one small ounce) from Paris to Bordeaux. Then she considered how she could best serve her adopted country in wartime.

Doctors in major cities were already using x-rays to view broken bones and locate foreign substances in the human body. Combatant nations quickly established radiology units in rear-area hospitals, but were slower to recognize the importance of x-ray units near the frontline, where a fast, accurate assessment of a wound allowed for quicker and more precise surgery, and better recovery rates.

Recognizing that the available services were inadequate, Curie leveraged her reputation to secure an appointment as the head of the radiology auxiliary to the Military Health Service. Then she convinced wealthy acquaintances to donate money and cars, automobile shops to refit the cars as vans, and manufacturers to provide x-ray equipment. She learned to drive a car and gave herself a quick education in anatomy, x-ray operation, and automobile repair.

By late October, 1914, the first 20 mobile radiology units, which French soldiers dubbed petites Curies,** were ready, manned (and in many cases womanned) by a team made up of a doctor, an x-ray technician and a driver. Madame Curie herself, with her seventeen-year-old daughter Irene as her assistant, drove one of the units to the battlefield.

By the end of the war, France had more than 500 stationary x-ray stations and some 300 mobile units, with 800 male technicians and 150 women trained by Madame Curie and Irene in an intensive six- to eight-week course at the Radium Institute in Paris.

At war’s end, the French government gave Irene a medal for her war work, but did not officially recognize Madame Curie’s role in saving countless soldiers’ lives.


*For more information on the use of x-rays in shoe stores: When X-Rays Were All the Rage, A Trip to the Shoe Store was Dangerously Illuminating

**I am reminded of another woman’s military medical innovation: Isabella of Castile created mobile field hospitals, known as the Queen’s Hospitals.


With hat tips to Paul and Karin for the link and the story.

From the Archives: Road Trip Through History–The American Cemetery

It is Memorial Day here in the United States: a time to remember soldiers fallen in our country’s service. Instead of writing a new post on the subject, I’ve chosen to share this post from 2016.

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People often visit the English Cemetery* when they go to Florence. The final resting place of prominent nineteenth century inglesi, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the cemetery is by all accounts a beautiful park in a city that already teems with beauty.

It was on our list of possibles, but when push came to running out of time we chose the American Cemetery instead. Where the English Cemetery holds the graves of self-selected nineteenth century expats, the American Cemetery honors an involuntary group of expatriates: 4398 American soldiers who died in the Allied campaign to liberate Italy in World War II. The cemetery site was taken by the US Fifth Army on August 3, 1944 and was subsequently granted for use as an American burial ground by the Italian government **

When I think of Florence and history, I think of the Renaissance. I don’t think about World War II. This is, of course, ridiculous. When you are in Florence, subtle reminders of the war are everywhere. Stories of museum curators and librarians who protected treasures of Renaissance art. Bridges that no longer exist because retreating German forces destroyed all of the bridges across the Arno except for the Ponte Vecchio, which was spared at the last minute.*** (Instead they blocked access by destroying the medieval buildings at either end of the bridge.) Tales of collaboration, resistance and the tricky balancing act in-between.

There is nothing subtle about the American Cemetery, which is made up of seventy acres of beautifully maintained graves and an imposing monument that tells the story of the Allied push from northward from Rome to the Alps. It is breath-taking, impressive, heartbreaking. But the thing that got me right in gut was the guest book. Most of the visitors who signed in were not American but Italian. And in the comments section one of them wrote a single word--grazie. Thank you.

*Yet another historical misnomer, like Prince Henry the Navigator or the Silk Road. The cemetery was founded in 1827 by the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church and originally named the Protestant Cemetery. But over the course of the century the size of the Anglo-Florentine community grew. So did the number of English (and American) Protestants who needed a final resting place.

** The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains American cemeteries and memorials, including the cemetery in Florence, in sixteen countries.

***Tour guide history attributes this to a personal order from Hitler. I suspect this is comic-book history, but I don't really know.