Quakers, relief and rescue in 1930s and 1940s Europe: a collaborative microfilming project with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Since 2006 the Library has been involved in a collaborative microfilming project with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The Museum, based in Washington DC, is the most comprehensive institution of its type in the world.

Its primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about the tragedy of the Holocaust, to preserve the memory of those who suffered, and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. The USHMM teaches millions each year about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide. It undertakes leadership training, education programmes, exhibitions and commemorations. As a memorial, it works against genocide through its Genocide Prevention Task Force, training foreign policy professionals.

The USHMM also collects archival material relating to the Holocaust from all over the world, and in 2006 it approached the Library of the Society of Friends to request access to British Quaker archive collections. It had already cooperated with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the main American Quaker organisation assisting refugees and war victims, which had provided a considerable quantity of lists, images and data to the Museum, including refugee case files 1933-1958 and records relating to humanitarian work in France.

Facing the second winter

Facing the second winter (London: Germany Emergency Committee, November 1934). With attached appeal dated May 1935

Substantial British Quaker work was done from 1933 onwards in relation to Nazi and Fascist Europe. This work included reporting on conditions inside Germany after the Nazi Party gained power in 1933, particularly in relation to political prisoners and their families, providing assistance to the prisoners and families, supporting the small community of German Quakers, assisting Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Poles and others suffering persecution, prosecution, imprisonment or exile for political, racial and religious reasons, and helping refugees and dependants arriving in Britain with employment, sponsorship, training, education, and re-emigration matters. In the UK there were also Quaker efforts for the welfare of those foreign refugees and UK residents who had been detained as “Enemy Aliens” soon after war was declared.

 This Quaker work was done principally by three committees – Friends Committee for Refugees and Aliens (originally known as the Germany Emergency Committee), Friends Relief Service, and Friends Service Council (the international department of the Society of Friends in Britain at the time). 
Wo finden sie eine Ruhestätte?

Germany Emergency Committee of the Society of Friends: wo finden sie eine Ruhestätte? (London: Germany Emergency Committee, December 1936)

During World War II and its immediate aftermath British and American Quakers also assisted civilian populations in many areas of Europe and elsewhere. This work from 1933 into the post-war period was recognized by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 (see our online exhibition at http://www.quaker.org.uk/nobel-peace-prize-1947 ).
Knitting at the Germany Emergency Committee workroom

Refugees knitting at the Germany Emergency Committee workroom, ca. 1939 (Library ref. Box FRS/1992/9 Germany Emergency Committee photographs)

The Library’s collaborative project with USHMM began with a survey of our holdings and an inspection of large numbers of publications, minute books and file series by the USHMM’s British research assistant. This formed the basis of the ongoing microfilm project to produce master negatives (retained by the Library) and positive microfilm copies (sent to the USHMM for use in its library and research facilities). This long-term project has involved Library staff in the careful preparation of materials for microfilming, checking lists against records, page-counting, checking for filing-order and physical condition, as well as preparation of film titles, specific volume or file titles, headers and other markers.

Refugees at work in the Germany Emergency Committee workroom

Refugees at work in the Germany Emergency Committee workroom, ca. 1939 (Library ref. Box FRS/1992/9 Germany Emergency Committee photographs)

So far at least 20 volumes of minute books and pamphlets, and 14 boxes or part-boxes of archives have been microfilmed. There are approximately 9 boxes (4000-5000 images) still to be filmed.

Among series already microfilmed are -

  • Friends Committee for Refugees and Aliens (Germany Emergency Committee) minutes, publications, administrative and correspondence files on conditions and individuals in Germany in the 1930s and assistance to refugees, internees and others during World War II.
  • Friends Service Council annual reports and internal correspondence files on British Quaker workers’ and local Quakers’ activities in assisting refugees and other victims of Nazism in (and from), China, Austria, France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland and Scandinavia from around 1933 onwards.
  • Palestine Watching Committee and Friends Service Council Middle East files material on Palestine and the Middle East, reporting on the pre-war situation there, and undertaking assistance after World War II.

The project will not only make World War II Quaker materials more widely available for public research, but will help to educate people in the prevention of genocide and hatred. The Library looks forward to continuing its work with the USHMM. For more information about the project, please contact the Archivist (library@quaker.org.uk)

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8 Responses to Quakers, relief and rescue in 1930s and 1940s Europe: a collaborative microfilming project with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

  1. Andrew Hicks says:

    What a wonderful transatlantic collaboration this is and a model perhaps for other projects. One such could be to microfilm or scan the newsletter series of the Friends Ambulance Unit ‘China Convoy’. These were prepared and distributed in China to all FAU members as a necessary link to all staff scattered in far flung places. They contain many pieces by talented writers that bring to life the day to day struggle to help the peoples of China, which tell the unfolding story of the China Convoy and vividly illustrate the challenging conditions that pertained in China at the time. The newsletter was published from March 1942 and these are in the Friends Library archives until March 1947 (Temp MSS 876 Box FAUCC 4). From 1946 the China Convoy was taken over by the AFSC and so subsequent ‘Chronicles’ so-called will be found in the archives in Philadelphia until the very last issue in March 1951. (You can Google ‘Survey of AFSC Archives on China (1924-1991)’ for a detailed list of holdings.) I am not sure how complete this collection of AFSC Chronicles is, but it would be wonderful to collaborate on recording and preserving a full collection of the surviving newsletters on both sides of the Atlantic. The original paper is crumbling and this is the ultimate research tool on the China Convoy as well as a very special collection of creative writing. It needs to be saved and made more accessible in one place. How could this idea be taken forward?

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thank you for your comment Andrew. We quite agree that the archives of the China Convoy and the rest of the Friends Ambulance Unit (in both World Wars) are a valuable and fascinating record of Quaker international work. Like many other collections, they are old and vulnerable. Twentieth century documents, particularly on loose sheets of low quality paper, are in many ways at greater risk from handling and storage than their older counterparts. As a follower of the blog you already know of some of the conservation work we have been able to undertake thanks to BeFriend A Book donors, and to grants from other bodies (such as the work on the seventeenth century Swarthmore Manuscripts collection, funded by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust). You can read more about how we plan preservation activities in our Preservation policy, which is available on our website. The kind of preservation microfilming described in this blogpost is only possible with external funding, which is why the collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is important. It is, however, expensive in terms of staff time, unfortunately, and there are limits to the number of projects we can undertake at once. We appreciate your input, and value your continued interest in the work of the Library.

  2. Deb says:

    Were Quakers involved with relief and aid efforts in conjunction with the Spanish Civil War during the same time period?

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Yes they were involved, both in feeding and shelter work in Spain, and in assisting refugees, particularly children. In fact some of the appeal leaflets produced at the time refer to both sets of victims, and acknowledge the danger of what we might now call ‘compassion fatigue’. You can read an account of Quaker relief work during the Spanish civil war in Farah Mendlesohn’s book, Quaker relief work in the Spanish civil war (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002)

  3. Pingback: Some new fruits of research in the Library’s collections | Quaker Strongrooms

  4. Larry Sexton says:

    Are there books that document the similar Quaker relief work in France during the 1940-44 period and in Europe during the 1944-50 period?and possibly providing their observations regarding the post-war conditions and the destitution and near famine conditions reported in Europe in that period?

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      There is a lot of published and archival material on these topics. One good place to get a general overview is the first volume of J. Ormerod Greenwood’s “Quaker Encounters” trilogy, Friends and Relief (York, 1975; ISBN 0900657294), chapters 15-18. You’ll find more books and articles through searching our online catalogue (http://quaker.org.uk/cat). You’re welcome to email us for more information on specific topics too (library@quaker.org.uk). As a summary –

      Friends worked in civilian relief efforts in Spain during the Civil War (1936-1939), for Friends Service Council and for the American Friends Service Committee, up to the fall of the government in early 1939. That year, some workers moved into France, to continue assistance to Spanish refugees there. All British Quaker workers, doing this and other work, had to leave France in 1940 after the surrender. A small number of Quaker workers, holding neutral European and/ or US nationalities, were able to continue work, including work for Jewish and other internees in France, up to late 1942.

      In France, French Quakers themselves continued some work through the years 1940-1944, on child and adult food programmes, and prisoners’ and Jewish deportees’ assistance projects. This was latterly under their own body Secours Quaker.

      British and American Quaker workers re-entered liberated Europe in summer 1944 in 2 different contexts. Firstly there were representatives of Friends Relief Service and of the American Friends Service Committee, who began arrangements to work with the Secours Quaker on a number of civilian projects. Secondly, also in 1944, a section of Friends Ambulance Unit (founded by Friends but not an official Quaker body), travelled with the Free French Army as medical units through a number of areas of France.

      Quaker organizations worked on civilian post-war relief in a number of European countries from 1944 onwards. This includes those mentioned above, plus the very hard work of other small Quaker Meetings and local communities. European countries where Quaker relief work took place included Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Poland and Yugoslavia.

      In 1947, Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of Friends’ work for civilian and refugee relief, for peace and for reconciliation throughout the inter-war, wartime and post-war periods.

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