4 Famous Recipients of the Nansen Passport, the Travel Document Created for Refugees

Dreamed up by a former polar explorer, the Nansen passport was the first legal travel document for refugees. Fridtjof Nansen, an adventurer turned Norwegian diplomat, created the document after becoming the League of Nation’s first High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1922, in response to the refugee crisis in Europe, he created the identity document that bore his name. (That same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize.)

The Nansen passport would go on to restore the right of half a million stateless people—displaced by World War I, the Armenian genocide, and the Russian Revolution—to cross borders and prove their identities. Nansen passports, usually renewed for a year at a time, continued to be issued until the 1940s when they were succeeded by the so-called London Travel Document, created after World War II. While most of those who used the Nansen passport were ordinary citizens, it also proved to be a lifesaver for several famous figures. Today, as Google celebrates what would have been Nansen's 156th birthday with a Google Doodle, we're looking back at the powerful document created in his name.

1. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Giuseppe Pinovia Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
On December 15, 1921, the Soviet government delivered an order that denaturalized large segments of the expatriate population. Among their number was Vladimir Nabokov, one of almost a million Russians who had left the country after the revolution. Nabokov travelled for years on Nansen passports. He was among many of the culturally minded Russian emigrés who gravitated to Berlin, where he met and married his wife, also from Russia. She, however, was Jewish, and the couple fled Nazi Germany for Paris in 1937. France had received many Russians after the revolution, and Nabokov’s character Colonel Taxovich in Lolita (1955) is often pointed to as an archetype of the exiled Russian in Paris, forced to accept reduced circumstances and importance.

Nabokov’s provisional documents still often caused him trouble. In his memoir, Speak, Memory he calls the Nansen passport “a very inferior document of a sickly green hue. Its holder was little better than a criminal on parole and had to go through most hideous ordeals every time he wished to travel from one country to another, and the smaller the countries the worse the fuss they made.” In his short story, “Conversation Piece, 1945,” Nabokov's narrator has a Nansen passport, “tattered sea-green,” missing a stamp “rudely refused” by a French consul. In 1940, Nabokov and his wife Vera left France for the United States, where Nabokov became a naturalized citizen in 1945. After the success of Lolita made his fortune, he spent the end of his life living at the foot of the Swiss Alps on Lake Geneva.

2. MARC CHAGALL

Pierre Choumoff via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
Marc was born Moïse Shagal (sometimes given as Moyshe Segal) to a Hasidic Jewish couple in what is modern-day Belarus. The young painter was initially a supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution and actually worked for the government. However, following ideological disputes with other artists and financial problems, he left in the early 1920s for France. It’s unclear exactly when he passed into statelessness, but he seems to have used Nansen passports after his 1923 move to France and before becoming a French citizen in 1937.

While Chagall eventually did earn French citizenship, he would lose his nationality for a second time in 1941. When the Nazis took power, Chagall and thousands of other Jews in occupied France had their citizenship stripped.

Luckily, Chagall was smuggled out of France by sympathetic Americans and lived out the rest of the war in New York. His French citizenship was restored after WWII, and he returned to France, where he remained until his death in 1985.

3. ROBERT CAPA

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The life of Robert Capa, born Endre Friedmann in 1913, had a wild trajectory. The young Hungarian, already in trouble for his political activity against his own country’s fascist regime, moved to Berlin in his late teens. He lived in Germany until Hitler’s rise to power prompted him to move to France in 1933.

In Paris he met another Jewish refugee, a woman who went by the name Gerda Taro. She inspired his own transformation to Robert Capa, an “American” photographer who had an easier time selling photos to the French press. Together the professional and romantic partners worked to document the Spanish Civil War. Taro was on a solo trip in 1937 when she died in Spain, but Capa went on to cover World War II. He would follow the Allies across North Africa and Europe, including photographing the D-Day landings for LIFE magazine.

After the war, Capa’s life took something of a turn. He occasionally photographed celebrities and dated Ingrid Bergman. While still traveling extensively, he technically moved to the U.S. in 1939, likely on a Nansen passport after his Hungarian citizenship had been revoked as the result of a change in Hungarian law. (He eventually became an American citizen in 1946.) However, he still also pursued work in war zones. He was killed by a landmine in Thai-Binh, in contemporary Vietnam, covering the French Indochina War in 1954. At the time of his death, he was just 40 years old.

4. IGOR STRAVINSKY

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Stravinsky was born in Russia in 1882. The child of two musicians, he was already widely traveled and established as a ballet composer by the outbreak of World War I. Stravinsky composed for the traveling troupe Ballets Russes, a number of whose members would eventually travel on Nansen passports. The dance company premiered his radically unconventional Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. After the war began, Stravinsky moved his family to Switzerland.

As far as politics back in Russia were concerned, Stravinsky was a monarchist, so he was not rushing to return home. With his acceptance of a Nansen passport in the early 20s, his biographer Richard Taruskin writes, Stravinsky “renounced his Russian nationality.” Stravinsky moved to France and would subsequently become a French citizen in 1934, move to California in 1940, and earn U.S. citizenship in 1945. His first return to the U.S.S.R. was a highly publicized visit in 1962 as the guest of Nikita Khrushchev, but the renowned composer would live out the rest of his life as an American.

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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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