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

Getty Images

 
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

Getty Images

 
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.

How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession With Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal ended up being a motivating force throughout much of his life. Even during the Revolutionary War, and even when he ran for the highest office in the land, he had mastodons on the mind. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy beasts still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he was determined to find them—or, at the very least, enlist a couple of intrepid explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to do the hunting on his behalf.

The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and headed into the great unknown of the Louisiana Purchase in search of an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the two-and-a-half-year round trip—mapping the geography of the region and logging hundreds of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—but the directive to look for mastodons is a little-known footnote to their famous expedition.

At the start of their trip, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Although he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at least not in any of the written correspondence on record—the two explorers were all too familiar with Jefferson’s mammoth ambition. “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it,” author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Volume 2.

Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his mastodon obsession was fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who thought America’s animals and people were puny. Jefferson’s bone-collecting hobby quickly evolved into a mission to assert America’s dominance in the Western world and prove that it was "a land full of big and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove your country is home to a 12,000-pound monster.

A Rivalry Forms

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

François-Hubert Drouais, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various points in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, a number of mastodon bones.

Though his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” published in the 1760s, postulated that the people and animals of America were small and weak because the climate (he assumed, without much evidence) was too cold and wet to encourage growth.

Jefferson was furious. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon's beliefs about the mastodon. Buffon suggested that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, but because Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements didn't match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a different animal entirely. (Although they’re distinct species, woolly mammoths and mastodons were lumped into the same category at the time, and were called one of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)

“The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled back his argument a bit, adding, “But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”

He didn’t just believe that mastodons had existed at one point in time, though—he believed they were still out there somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson's era to assume that bones were evidence of a still-living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the concept of extinction wasn’t widely accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the idea that God’s creations couldn't be destroyed.

For his part, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural order, and that removing a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the whole system into disarray. Taking the tone of a philosopher, he once questioned, “It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?”

This position may have been partly fueled by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon would be the most satisfying way to stick it to Buffon and say, “I told you so.” (In the meantime, though, he had to settle for a dead moose, which he sent overseas to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to prove that large animals did, in fact, exist in America.)

The Hunt Continues

A painting of The Exhumation of the Mastadon

This 1806 painting by Charles Willson Peale, titled The Exhumation of the Mastadon, shows mastodon bones being excavated from a water-filled pit.

Charles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and asked him to fetch some mastodon teeth from a nearby "mastodon boneyard" in northern Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. “Were it possible to get a tooth of each kind, that is to say a foretooth, grinder, &c, it would particularly oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark politely explained that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to procure a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from travelers who had managed to visit the frontier.

However, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark's reply until six months later in August 1782 (because of, you know, the Revolutionary War). Although the war technically didn't end until the following year, peace talks between the two sides were nearing a conclusion, and everybody knew it. With an end to the conflict in sight, Jefferson doubled down on his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to me the most desireable object in Natural History, and there is no expence of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely.”

Later, while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the expedition was called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to look for mastodons along the way. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Under the head of Animal history, that of the Mammoth is particularly recommended to your enquiries.”

Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he was still thinking about mastodons. His preoccupations were so widely known that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “mammoth infidel” in reference to his unusual hobby and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Magazine of American History recalled, “When Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to some bones of the mammoth which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”

Once president, Jefferson used his office to further the field of paleontology. Not long after he was elected, he loaned one of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-filled pit. It ultimately became the first fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in America.

Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon during their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. After their return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second assignment to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three big boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who got to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.

Still, something wasn’t quite right, and Jefferson may have known it even then. By 1809, the animal in question had been identified and given the name mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature seems not to have provided other food sufficient for him," he wrote, "and the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse."

Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate

Thomas Jefferson
National Archive/Newsmakers

The fact that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had gone extinct long ago. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”

Although he was unsuccessful in his quest to find a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature he believed to be a lion were later revealed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “great claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.

Nowadays, the ground sloth fossils—and several other items that formed the "cabinet of curiosities" Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are part of The Academy of Natural Science collection at Drexel University. Considering that Jefferson is sometimes called "the founder of North American paleontology,” it would appear he got his revenge against Buffon after all.

CBS Is Live-Streaming Its 1969 Coverage of the Apollo 11 Launch Right Now on YouTube

The Saturn V rocket lifts off with the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969.
The Saturn V rocket lifts off with the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969.
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today is the 50th anniversary of the July 16, 1969 launch of the Apollo 11 mission, which resulted in the first Moon landing in history. CBS News is commemorating the momentous event with a YouTube live stream of its special coverage from that day, which you can watch below.

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite brought all the thrill and wonder of the takeoff into the homes of countless Americans, and he also introduced them to three soon-to-be-famous astronauts: former Navy pilot Neil Armstrong, Air Force colonel Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and former Air Force fighter pilot (and experimental test pilot) Michael Collins.

Cronkite chronicled the astronauts’ journey from their 4:15 a.m. breakfast at the command space center to Kennedy Space Center’s launch station 39A, where they boarded the Saturn V rocket. CBS sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun reported from the Florida beach itself, interviewing spectators who were hoping to witness history happen in real time. “I just hope they make it successfully and have no problem," said a visitor from California.

In the final seconds before liftoff, Cronkite counted down, not knowing what the future of the mission would hold.

Tune into the live stream below, or check out the highlights from CBS News here.

[h/t CBS News]

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