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.

5 Fast Facts about Madam C.J. Walker

 Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During a time when Jim Crow laws were actively being passed by state legislatures and segregation was total, one self-made businesswoman managed to stand out and serve as an inspiration for female entrepreneurs and people of color in America. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867—the sixth child in her family but the first not born into slavery—the future Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of hair products and cosmetics and became likely the first female millionaire in the country. Here are a few quick facts about her historic success story.

1. Madam C.J. Walker first worked as a laundress.

In 1888, the woman who would become Madam C.J. Walker was Sarah McWilliams, a 20-year-old widow with a toddler. After her husband's death, she moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, where her elder brothers were working as barbers. To support herself and her daughter, Lelia, she took a job as a washerwoman. She earned roughly $1.50 a day, but managed to save up in order to provide for her daughter's education.

2. Madam C.J. Walker's hair products were made especially for black women.

At the turn of the century, many African Americans suffered from issues of hair loss and dandruff, possibly due to the harsh irritants in the lye soap used by launderers and some combination of poor hygiene conditions, low-protein diets, and damaging hair treatments. Walker herself had a chronic hair-loss problem. According to the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles, "if Sarah used the widely distributed patent medicines that were heavily laced with alcohol and other harsh chemicals, [she would only make] the malady worse by stripping her hair of its natural oils."

In 1904, Sarah joined African-American businesswoman Annie Turbo Malone's team of agents after using Malone's "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" product to treat her own ailments. She began investing in creating her own product, and in 1906 she married her third husband, a Mr. Charles Joseph Walker. Walker launched her own "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" line of ointments and other products and began selling them door-to-door.

3. Madam C.J. Walker created a beauty culture empire.

Once Walker's business was nation-wide and incorporated, she expanded internationally to the Caribbean and Central America in 1913. Within the next few years, she acquired over 25,000 sales agents; she had a beauty school called the Lelia College of Beauty Culture in Pittsburg that trained her "hair culturists." By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at age 51, her business profits had skyrocketed to over $500,000 in sales annually. In fact, products inspired by Walker's can still be purchased today.

4. Madam C.J. Walker's Irvington, New York mansion will soon host more female entrepreneurs.

By the end of her life, Walker had amassed sizable wealth—she's widely considered to be the first self-made female millionaire, though specific numbers are vague. (Her New York Times obituary noted that "Estimates of Mrs. Walker's fortune had run up to $1,000,000 … She spent $10,000 every year for the education of young negro men and women in Southern colleges and sent six youths to Tuskegee Institute every year.") She also had ventures in real estate, and in 1918 her 20,000-square-foot mansion, called Villa Lewaro, was completed in Irvington, New York, about 20 miles north of her famed Walker townhouse in Harlem. In 2018, the estate was purchased by the New Voices Foundation, a group that has invested $100 million into a fund focused on providing support and leadership initiatives to women of color seeking their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Even 100 years after her death, Walker's legacy remains strong.

5. Octavia Spencer is set to play Madam C.J. Walker in an upcoming TV series.

As first reported by Deadline in 2018, Netflix has ordered an eight-episode series about Walker's life and legacy. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is set to star in and produce the series, and LeBron James will serve as an executive producer. While there isn't a firm release date set, the series is certain to be an eye-opening one for those unfamiliar with Walker's incredible story. The show will be based on the 2001 biography by Bundles.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

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