By Ashby Crowder
In her 2005 study Drawing The Line: Nature, Hybridity and Politics in Transboundary Spaces, geographer Juliet Fall recounts a parable from a tumultuous corner of Europe: “A local tale told of a man who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, christened in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary, had his first child in the USSR, and died in Ukraine, without ever leaving his village” (p. 270).
The story manages to find humor and absurdity in the frequency of social and political upheaval, despite the tragedy and terror that were part and parcel of these transformations. In this way, you might say this parable is typical East-Central European comedic fare. I thought of this story as I came across some documents from the Records of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States (Record Group 299) last week. The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission is an independent federal agency charged with determining the validity and monetary value of claims of U.S. nationals for loss of property or for personal injury caused by foreign governments. In the second half of the twentieth century, the commission administered numerous claims programs for American-owned property in Eastern Europe lost through war or nationalization. Frequent national border changes could create some real confusion for both the claimants and the administrators of the claims programs.
In letters from the series Correspondence Relating to the Polish Program (ARC 6004085), a family attorney and a Department of State official share an exchange about which country controls the territory of the community Galicia Dolina Weldzirz—Poland or the Soviet Union. In this case, it was the USSR, and the official informs the attorney that it has become nearly impossible for persons in the Soviet Union to communicate with relatives in the United States.
In another exchange, this one from the series Polish Claims Files (ARC 5917183), a claimant and a Foreign Claims Settlement Commission official discuss the location of a community identified as Kolowka bei Borscow. While the claimant insists that the territory is Polish, and includes a statement to that effect from the Consulate General of Poland in Chicago, the commission determines that the community is now in the USSR. It must therefore deny the claim.
From claim number PO-1795
The postwar border changes were so vast that for years after the war some people really didn’t know where to find their native villages on a political map, and even at the highest levels of government it could be hard to find out what was where.
Note: While some of these records were created by the Department of State, they were transferred to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.