Department of State Records Relating to Refugees, Displaced Persons, Relief, and War Crimes During the World War II Era, Part 1: Central Files

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Perennial subjects of interest in the records of the Department of State for the World War II era are refugees, displaced persons, relief, and war crimes.  Among the headquarters records of the Department of State are many records relating to those topics.  This is the first of three posts to discuss those materials.

The records are divided between the central files and the decentralized files of the Department.  The decentralized files are often referred to as “Lot Files.”  While there is significant overlap among the central and decentralized records, researchers will find unique material in both categories of files.  For example, the central files are the most authoritative source for the telegrams, airgrams, and despatches exchanged between the Department and its overseas posts.  At the same time, the decentralized files contain copies of many of those documents.

In addition to the records of the Department of State, there are records of other agencies that are so closely related to those of the Department that they warrant mentioning.

The overall discussion of the records in this series of blog posts is arranged as follows:

Part 1: Central Files

Part 2: Decentralized Files

Part 3: Related Agencies & Publications

mother standing behind 2 children
A mother and her two children after their arrival at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, 1944 (NAID 176250634)

Central Files

The Department of State’s World War II era central recordkeeping system is arranged according to a pre-determined decimal subject classification scheme known as the Central Decimal File.  The records are arranged subjectively in nine classes.  The class number becomes the first digit of the file number.  Within these classes, the files are further broken down by subject:

  • Class 0: General. Miscellaneous
  • Class 1: Administration
  • Class 2: Extradition
  • Class 3: Protection of Interests
  • Class 4: Claims
  • Class 5: International Congresses and Conferences
  • Class 6: Commerce
  • Class 7: Political Relations of State
  • Class 8: Internal Affairs of States
    • This class is further divided into file categories on political affairs; public order, safety, health, and works; military affairs; naval affairs; social matters; economic matters; industrial matters; communication and transportation; navigation; and other internal affairs.

The records are mostly instructions to and despatches, telegrams, and airgrams from American Foreign Service Officers overseas. The despatches are often accompanied by enclosures. In addition to official exchanges between the Department of State and its field representatives, there are notes exchanged between the Department of State and foreign diplomatic and consular representatives in the United States, memorandums by officials of the Department, correspondence and memorandums exchanged with other agencies of the U.S. Government, and correspondence with private firms and individuals.

The Class 8 files “840.48” and “840.48 REFUGEES” are the primary files relating to two major problems facing the United States from 1938 to 1949: (1) how to handle relief measures in a Europe in the throes of war and political conflict and (2) how to deal with refugees displaced by persecution and fighting and unable to return home in the war’s aftermath.  The Department’s interest and involvement with relief efforts began before the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 and continued after the war ended there in May 1945.

File “840.48” constitutes the Department’s main records documenting the general problem of calamities, disasters, and relief activities in Europe.  Major topics covered in this file include State Department assistance to the American Red Cross in shipping drugs, medical supplies and equipment, and other relief supplies to Europe; wartime relief efforts for the civilians of occupied countries; postwar relief activities of the Office of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation Operations (OFRRO), the President’s War Relief Control Board, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and C.A.R.E. (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, Inc.); former President Herbert Hoover’s visit to Europe and Asia in March and April 1946 as chairman of the President’s Famine Committee; and overall relief aspects of European reconstruction, better known as the Marshall Plan.  This file has been microfilmed and is available on rolls 1-18 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M1284: Records of the Department of State Relating to the Problems of Relief and Refugees in Europe Arising from World War II and Its Aftermath, 1938-1949.

File “840.48 REFUGEES” deals with the problem of European refugees.  The early part of the file contains material documenting U.S. concern for political and Jewish refugees in Germany and Austria before World War II.  This concern led the United States to call for a conference to discuss the situation.  The meeting, known formally as the Intergovernmental Meeting on Political Refugees, took place at Evian, France, from July 6 to 15, 1938.  During the meeting, the numerous participating countries decided to establish a continuing body, the Intergovernmental Committee for Political Refugees, to be located in London.  This file contains documentation on U.S. participation in the Intergovernmental Committee, and, beginning in September 1939, documents the problem of European refugees all over the world.  The file also contains materials documenting Department of State cooperation on the refugee problem with other agencies of the U.S. Government, other governments, and private organizations.  For the period after the war, the file contains documentation on Displaced Persons (DP’s) and refugees from communism in Eastern Europe.  Special topics include: the settling of Jewish refugees in Santo Domingo at the Sosua Settlement by the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (1940-45); the trip of Linton Wells through Angola (May-August 1939) to examine that area for possible settlement of refugees; the smuggling of refugees, particularly Jewish refugees, out of Europe to all parts of the world; illegal Jewish migration to Palestine; the establishment and liquidation of the Polish refugee camp at Santa Rosa, Mexico; reports on refugee camps in Kenya; the activities of the War Refugee Board, including its weekly reports of activities and news and the appointment of special War Refugee Board attaches to U.S. missions; the establishment of the Advisory Committee on Refugees and Displaced Persons at Allied Force Headquarters; the flight of Baltic refugees to Sweden in the face of Soviet annexation of their countries; the liquidation of the Emergency Refugee Shelter at Oswego, N.Y.; problems resulting from the forced removal of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia; postwar repatriation of refugees; and liquidation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (1947).  This file has been microfilmed, too, and is available on rolls 19-70 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M1284: Records of the Department of State Relating to the Problems of Relief and Refugees in Europe Arising from World War II and Its Aftermath, 1938-1949.

Key finding aids to the Central Decimal File, created contemporaneously by the Department, are the Purport Lists and Cards (NAID 580701).  These lists and cards describe the documents indexed to the central file.  The lists and cards covering the years 1910-44 have been microfilmed and are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M973: Purport Lists for the Department of State Decimal File, 1910-44.  The records for 1945-49 period are not available on microfilm.  The lists and cards for “840.48” and “840.48 REFUGEES” for the 1938-44 period are found on rolls 387 (NAID 87896443), 573 (NAID 88132900), 574 (NAID 88134647) and 643 (NAID 88205287). These are all digitized and available in the Catalog.

Other file categories in the Central Decimal File (NAID 302021) as well as the Purport Lists and Cards (NAID 580701) that deal with refugees, displaced persons, relief efforts, and war crimes during the World War II era, include the following (where needed, replace the ** with the appropriate country number):

501.BD Refugees UN Special Committee on Refugees
548.G1Bermuda Conference to consider the Refugee Problem, 1943
740.00116 EWEuropean War: Illegal and Inhumane Warfare
740.00116 PWPacific War: Illegal and Inhumane Warfare
8**.4016Internal Affairs of Countries: Race Problems
840.4016 DPDisplaced persons in Europe
8**.48Internal Affairs of Countries: Calamities and disasters
840.50 RecoveryEuropean Recovery (The Marshall Plan)
840.50 UNRRAUnited Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration

Next: The Decentralized Files