Thursday, March 30, 2023

1943: International Red Cross: An 80-Year-Old Family Message

This is my love note to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the story of how they helped my family 80 years ago.

The ICRC was founded in 1863 in Switzerland, and to date, the organization and its founder have been honored by the Nobel committee FOUR times. The very first Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded went to Henri Dunant in 1901 for founding the Red Cross. The second was awarded to the ICRC in 1917 (in response to their activities in WWI), in 1944 (their efforts in WWII), and in 1963 to both the ICRC and the League of Red Cross societies (the national-level organizations like the American Red Cross) to honor them for 100 years of efforts.

Let's put that in perspective. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded only 30 times since 1901 (if they don't feel someone deserves the prize in a given year, they just don't award it). Only one other group has been awarded the prize more than once: the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 1954 and 1981. 

One of the ICRC's missions is to reconnect families separated by war and disasters through their "family messages," and they have been doing it since its founding. You can read more about it here: 

And almost exactly 80 years ago, on March 3, 1943, they sent a message on behalf of my family:

(Click on the images to enlarge)

The messages were short (25 words or less), and my grandfather wrote: "All three are healthy. Have you already sent 300$ for Roma to the address: Dr. Stanisz,  Binningen, near Basel Waldeckweg 46, Switzerland. Kisses"

The message was to my Great-Uncle Jake (my grandmother's brother) in the United States, letting him know my grandparents and their daughter were OK. But it also asked for money in a very curious way.

It was tricky for Americans to get money to families in occupied countries. In effect, they gave the money to a local friend with a family member living in Europe. The money was passed to the person in Europe, who withdrew it and gave it to the intended recipient. 

In other words, Uncle Jake finds out that a friend here in the United States has a brother (or something) named "Dr. Stanisz," who lives in Switzerland.  Uncle Jake opens a bank account in Dr. Stanisz's name at a bank here in the US.  Dr. Stanisz then (through international banking procedures) withdraws the money and passes it to my Grandma Roma in France.

 I don't exactly know why Uncle Jake couldn't just open a bank account in my grandmother's name. Still, I can guess: My grandparents were living in France illegally, sometimes under false identities and forged identification papers.  And withdrawing $300 (several months of salary in those days) from an enemy bank would have drawn attention my grandparents couldn't afford.

I don't have Jake's response to the family message, so I do not know what info the Red Cross provided to back to my grandparents.  But in the fall of 1944, after their area was liberated, my grandparents sent a very long letter to Jake summarizing their life in France between 1941 and 1944; the letter mentioned both the money transfer AND the family message (assuming it was the same Red Cross family message, but the timing checks out):
You let us know in a family message from the Red Cross, which took 15 months for the outward and return journey ...  
In 1942 and 1943, we tried twice to get you to pay $300 to people whose families were living in France or Switzerland and who would be able to send us money. We did not succeed. But I hope you didn't pay anything. This is Mrs. Grace Lynch and Dr. Stanisz. 
Interestingly, after the war, my grandfather - in a series of telegrams - directed Uncle Jake to get money to Grace Lynch, who lived in Massachusetts, so she must have sent them money at some point, though I don't have the details.

But there's another important role the ICRC played in my grandfather's life:

The Red Cross was directly responsible for the Geneva Convention treaties ratified by most world governments.

The Geneva Convention governs the treatment of enemy soldiers, POWs, and civilians in war zones and occupied countries. What most people don't know is that there have actually been four Geneva Conventions:
  • 1863: the first convention occurred the same year the ICRC was founded, and it obliges combatants and governments to care for wounded soldiers, regardless of which side they are on. 
  • 1909: the second convention extended these protections to naval forces and shipwreck survivors.
  • 1929: the third convention added protections for POWs.  There were also efforts to establish protections for civilians, but they were ultimately unable to get them ratified.
  • 1949: The fourth convention happened in direct response to the atrocities of WW2. It added protections for civilians in war zones and occupied areas and updated all the protections from the first three conventions.
Another amazing thing is that ICRC openly lists its operational failures on its website. Here's what they said about the third convention:
The ICRC persuaded governments to adopt a new Geneva Convention in 1929 to provide greater protection for prisoners of war. But despite the obvious broader threats posed by modern warfare, it was unable to have them agree on new laws to protect civilians in time to prevent the atrocities of World War II.
They are even blunter about WW2:
However, this period also saw the ICRC's greatest failure: its lack of action on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and other persecuted groups. Lacking a specific legal basis, bound by its traditional procedures and hindered in its ability to act by its ties with the Swiss establishment, it was unable to take decisive action or to speak out. It was left to individual ICRC delegates to do what they could to save groups of Jews.
The Geneva Convention protocols were very important to my grandfather, as a potential victim of violence and later when his FFI unit dealt with a prisoner.  

Being in the FFI was dangerous, not just because he was a soldier with no training and was fighting a well-trained, well-armed enemy, but also because Nazi Germany ignored requests from the Allies and the ICRC to consider the FFI an Allied military organization. They summarily executed FFIs as armed civilians and terrorists.  
I had many, many, many friends who, instead of being … treated as soldiers and waiting for the end of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, they were shot. Killed immediately.
Grandpa took comfort from his FFI Armband (his uniform), and though it offered little protection or guarantee of fair treatment, it was better than nothing.

And later, his unit captured a French traitor and Milice member who participated in the mass execution of another FFI unit. Grandpa hated the man, yet provided him with food and water when the rest of the unit refused, because he genuinely believed in the Geneva convention.  He hinted about it here:
First, he denied being the traitor we were all looking for. But after a clever, long questioning by one of our officers, he confessed his crime. He was then left for a day in a barn, without any food or water, as a result of all this hatred accumulated against him. But this was against my own principles of humanity and civilization. We did not wage war against the barbarian Nazis to become similar to them, even not in retaliation.  I brought him some food and water. He thanked me. Looking straight into his eyes, I said, “Would you have done it [for me]? I know that you wouldn’t, and you do not deserve my help. I do not do it for you, but for myself, for my conscience.”
One more historical note about the ICRC:  many national-level organizations were founded after it was established in 1863. The very first was the German Red Cross in that same year. Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross 18 years later, in 1881 (I suppose America was too consumed by the Civil War to be an early adopter), and the American government ratified the protocols just a year after Barton founded the ARC.  

The International Red Cross and the American Red Cross are worthy organizations. I hope you'll consider donating blood and/or money:
One final (and slightly stupid) note: That historical family message form was printed in 3 languages: French, English, and German.  I've found misspellings in German and English, and inconsistencies in punctuation, typeface and other things.  THIS is why you hire tech writers, people!

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