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Processes of Spatialization in the Americas

Configurations and Narratives


Edited By Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez and Hannes Warnecke-Berger

Where do the Americas begin, and where do they end? What is the relationship between the spatial constructions of «area» and «continent»? How were the Americas imagined by different actors in different historical periods, and how were these imaginations – as continent, nation, region – guided by changing agendas and priorities? This interdisciplinary volume addresses competing and conflicting configurations and narratives of spatialization in the context of globalization processes from the 19th century to the present.

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The Post–World War II Resettlement of European Refugees in Venezuela: A Twofold Translation of Migration

Sebastian Huhn and Christoph A. Rass

The Post–World War II Resettlement of European Refugees in Venezuela: A Twofold Translation of Migration

Abstract: After World War II, approximately 18 million people were uprooted all over Europe. Many of them refused to be repatriated, mainly because they did not want to return to the communist Eastern Bloc. Thus, the International Refugee Organization (IRO) was created within the framework of the just-established United Nations. Between 1947 and January 1952, the IRO resettled more than 1 million refugees and displaced persons (DPs) all over the world. About 17,000 of them were resettled in Venezuela. Although the country was involved neither in World War II nor in the upcoming Cold War, it became one of the most important receiving countries of the resettlement in the Global South. While the IRO’s resettlement program has been mainly discussed from the perspective of European History, the chapter first argues to add the perspective of Venezuelan migration politics and history to the analysis of the program to understand the program as a spatialization process within global migration. Second, the chapter emphasizes the need to analyze the agency of refugees and DPs as well as the IRO field officers in the process of the resettlement. How did the involved actors translate the political idea of the resettlement into a solution for their personal needs and political convictions?


The end of World War II and the Allied victory over national-socialist Germany resulted in the second modern global refugee “challenge” after what had happened in the context of World War I (Ther 76). Approximately 18 million people were uprooted all over Europe (Gatrell 85). A great number of those people were wrested from their original homes by the National Socialists as forced laborers, prisoners of war, or as inmates in the concentration camps and victims of the Shoah. In addition to those displaced persons (DPs), hundreds of thousands of East European postwar refugees who escaped the Red Army and the Eastern Bloc and thousands of Spanish refugees who escaped Franco Spain scattered all over Western Europe.

The Allies’ initial plan after victory was to repatriate the refugees and DPs within a few years (Cohen, In War’s 27). It soon became apparent, however, that many of them either refused to be repatriated or could not return to their prewar places of origin for several reasons such as traumas, prior loss of their ←243 | 244→livelihood through destruction or the confiscation of land and property, lack of prospects to be able to establish new livelihoods, or personal fear of either the Red Army and communist Eastern European state institutions or fascist Franco Spain (for the Soviet Union, see Goeken-Haidl). The Western Allies therefore developed another plan: the global resettlement of the nonrepatriated refugees and DPs. The Soviet Union opposed the resettlement idea for comprehensible reasons and still insisted on the plan of forcible repatriation if necessary (Marrus 313–24). It was already known that many refugees and DPs refused to return to the Eastern Bloc, while labor force was low in the Eastern European states as a result of massive human loss during the war. As the Western Allies implemented the plan anyway by founding the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1947 within the United Nations framework, the resettlement program is thus also considered one of the first conflicts of the upcoming Cold War (Cohen, In War’s; Gatrell 90; Ther 225–35).

Venezuela became a very important player in the resettlement program. With over 17,000 received refugees and DPs via the IRO resettlement program between 1947 and 1951, it was, first, the tenth largest receiving country of the IRO’s resettlement program on a global scale and even the third largest in terms of accepted DPs in relation to its own population (IRO 1951: 35; Holborn 433). Second, other than, for example, the United States, France, or the United Kingdom, as a Latin American “peripheral” state it did not have the same moral, historical, or political obligations to participate in the program. Third, it was not yet involved in the upcoming Cold War (like in most Latin American countries this did not become an issue till the United States began its counterinsurgency operations against the socialist Arbenz’ government in Guatemala after 1952) and therefore did not have any political reason to help to stabilize Western Europe. Fourth, on the other hand, Venezuela also became one of the most active participants in the program. Other than the larger Latin American receiving political countries Argentina and Brazil, it had become a member of the IRO’s General Council (IRO 1951: III) and it was the only Latin American country in the IRO’s Executive Committee (Cohen, In War’s 201n73). Fifth, measured by population density, Venezuela finally even received more refugees and DPs than Argentina and Brazil.1

While the IRO and certain countries such as the United States and Great Britain are considered as active protagonists in research about the resettlement ←244 | 245→project, neither “peripheral” receiving countries nor the refugees and DPs themselves gain much attention as subjects with agency rather than objects in this process. The resettlement program is an important example of the post–World War II awareness that nation-states were “no longer the most effective frame for social action” (Middell and Naumann 150). However, its history has basically been written as either a history of the internationalizing Global North or an institutional history of the IRO and other agencies instead of a global history.

In much of international research about the resettlement program, the question why, how, and under which conditions countries such as Venezuela did participate is poorly investigated. There was a lack of manpower and population in the country during the 1940s, but this alone does not explain Venezuela’s active role and policies. European and US-American research about the resettlement in the Global South ignores dynamics in these receiving countries (and vice versa), but a glance at the Venezuelan research about immigration helps to open a new historical perspective to the resettlement program. Thus, the first aim of this chapter is to discuss Venezuela’s perspective regarding the resettlement program. We argue that putting emphasis on the simultaneousness and entanglement of two totally different visions of spatial order or spatial frameworks (Middell and Naumann 155, 158), and on the reciprocal translation of the political “portal of globalization” (Middell and Naumann 162; Baumann et al.) that the resettlement program had opened, offers a way to understand the resettlement to Venezuela as a country that was involved neither in World War II nor in the early stages of the Cold War. With the analytical category of “portal of globalization,” we refer to the fact that it is important to analyze how actors manage global entanglements and thus add a micro-perspective to the very macro-concept of globalization. The category of “translation” thereby acknowledges the fact that the resettlement program was initiated within the framework of the establishing United Nations and against the background of the postwar situation in Europe, but also the fact that Venezuela had to translate this program into its own national political discourse. We thus argue that it is important to write the history of resettlement as global history both to incorporate its margins and to put its center into perspective.

The second aim of this chapter is to argue for a focus on the refugees and DPs themselves as actors who used the resettlement program as a social “portal of globalization” to actively solve their personal crises as well as on the IRO officers on the ground, who translated the resettlement program into a political practice together with the refugees and DPs. Regarding those actors’ agency, we introduce the analytical value of historical sources about the practice of negotiating resettlement. Research on the resettlement often neglects the refugees and DPs and the IRO officers as protagonists of the resettlement, who had to translate an ←245 | 246→idea and a set of rules into a practice. The IRO’s history is written as the history of either an organization or a political plan, but the DPs and refugees themselves are rather treated as the policy’s objects (instead of individuals with agency) and the IRO officers on the ground are vastly underrepresented, too.2 The IRO’s care-and-maintenance documents reveal a lot of information about how the refugees and DPs acted (according to their needs and expectations) within the social space3 that the resettlement program provided. The documents disclose how they translated the resettlement program according to their needs.4

To emphasize the active role of both Venezuela as a receiving country and the refugees and DPs, we borrow the concept of translation from translation studies’ academic debate about cultural translation, the postmodern and postcolonial understanding of translation, and the notion of overcoming the idea of the “proper translation” (Bachmann-Medick 6; see also Buden and Nowotny). First, following Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, postcolonial studies emphasized the importance of analyzing the translation of meanings in intercultural settings and to overcome Eurocentrism in this regard (Bachmann-Medick 10). This perspective helps to rethink the resettlement program. Western politicians created a certain set of rules for the resettlement program as a potential solution for what they perceived as the problem or task. This does not mean that certain receiving countries understood the program the same way. If we want to understand the history of the resettlement program from the perspective of migration history, we also need to focus on the translation of the idea by actors (in this case Venezuela) who spoke a different political language and had thus translated the project according to their own political agenda. Second, following a poststructural meaning of translation as proposed by Hall, for example, it is important to note that a certain ←246 | 247→idea is not stable in a positivist sense, but constantly retranslated (Bachmann-Medick 13). The resettlement plan, its constitution, or the intention of its authors thus does not reveal how and in what political practice it was translated by the two actors involved on the ground: the IRO officers, on the one hand, and the refugees and DPs, on the other. This approach is also linked to the idea of analyzing the migration politics—as resettlement—based on the concept of migration regimes, understood as a complex cluster of actors in asymmetric relations negotiating frameworks for migration and/or integration (Rass and Wolff). We thus aim to test the conceptual potential of translation as a cultural process to better understand what happens in this negotiation.

Thus, the chapter aims to discuss two classes of actors besides the IRO and the Western community. They had developed the IRO’s resettlement program as an idea, but without the receiving countries’ ability or willingness to translate this project into their own spatial and population planning agenda. Thus, the program could not be implemented the way it was. Furthermore, the idea to move 1 million people following a labor-market-orientated-supply-and-demand logic does not yet reveal how the postwar refugees and DPs (and also its practitioners, the IRO’s officers on the ground) acted within those spatial orders and within the social space that the resettlement program had created.

2The Birth of an International Spatial Order of Migration after World War II

The IRO was created in 1947 (after the development of the idea in 1946, by the UN General Assembly as a temporary international organization for the resettlement of the European refugees and DPs (IRO 1951; Marrus 340; Yundt 31–32). Between 1947 and 1951 or January 1952 respectively. The IRO resettled above 1 million refugees and DPs.5 Some of them were resettled in Europe, but the IRO also organized the resettlement of approximately 700,000 refugees and ←247 | 248→DPs outside Europe. Over 300,000 of them migrated to the United States, over 180,000 were resettled in Australia, followed by Canada and Israel (Holborn 433). Roughly about 100,000 of the refugees and DPs were resettled in Latin America (Caestecker 533; Holleuffer 131).

The IRO’s resettlement program has predominantly been written as either European history or as a history of the internationalizing North. Early academic and political writing about the resettlement program not only highlighted the humanistic approach of the Western Allies but also referred to the space and population planning aspect. Donald Kingsley, director general to the General Council of the IRO from 1949 till 1952, described it in 1951 as follows:

The objective of the governments joining together in the IRO was purely humanitarian. The nature of the problem, however, combined with the techniques developed to solve it, has resulted in the accumulation of practical experience which is applicable to the even larger problem of European over-population. […] We know also that the millions of “surplus” men, women and children who now burden the relief rolls and lengthen the queues of unemployed across the face of Europe, could and would contribute enormously to the wealth, the strength and progress of the free world if means could be found to transplant them to those broad areas where their talents and skills are in great demand. (IRO 1951: V)

Kingsley’s 1951 statement reveals an important contradiction. While praising the “purely humanitarian” approach, what he elaborates is the idea of bringing order into the post–World War II space—or the “free world” in Kingsley’s terms—with a great space and population planning policy to distribute population and workforce by establishing an international migration regime.6

Academic work focusing on the resettlement program from a perspective of European studies, international diplomacy studies, or international organization studies first picked up the humanitarian aspect. In her pioneering study, Holborn interpreted the resettlement program as an expression of the humanitarian values of the Western community of states. Later however, studies emphasized the importance of the upcoming Cold War to understand the resettlement program (Marrus 340–45; Salomon). Besides the space and population order ←248 | 249→policy another space-related aspect becomes important here: “At the end of the 1940s it was the aim of Western allied policy to build a stable political order [and space] in front of the Iron Curtain” (Holleuffer 129).7

3The Translation of the European Refugee “Crisis” into a Motor for Venezuelan Nation Building

The international literature about the IRO’s resettlement program’s path between humanism and the Cold War basically neglects countries such as Venezuela as active players in the resettlement project. Immigration, however, was already debated as an important motor for development in Venezuela since the early 19th century, independently from European and US-American policies and ideas.8 With the successful development and immigration policies of the United States, Argentina, and Brazil in mind, populating the country and especially the countryside became one of the main ideas of a Venezuelan spatial planning policy of national development (Berglund and Calimán 19; Pellegrino 7).

3.1Venezuela in the 1940s and 1950s

In the first decades of the 20th century, the oil boom became the boon and bane of Venezuelan development and nation and state building. The country became the world’s number two producer of oil (after the United States) and this brought a lot of money into the coffers of both the state and the private oil industry. At the same time, following the logics of a Dutch disease, national agricultural production eroded as prices for agricultural imports dropped and local farmers could not compete any longer.9 As the oil industry offered lucrative direct and indirect employment possibilities, a rural exodus was the consequence (Boeckh; ←249 | 250→Burchardt).10 In 1936, according to the Censo General de Población y Vivienda, the population of Venezuela—a country twice as large as France—comprised about 3.4 million inhabitants (Pellegrino 371). While immigration had been discussed as a population and space planning policy since independence, according to Vernant, between 1832 and 1932 only 100,000 immigrants had come to Venezuela (693). Underpopulation thus became a twofold problem for nation and state building: on the one hand, manpower was short in agriculture and other sectors and on the other hand, population was generally short in the country’s rural peripheries and border regions with Colombia and Brazil. Increasing the population therefore more and more became part of the development agenda.

On the political level, Venezuela started a process of state and nation building after dictator Juan Vicente Gómez’ death in 1935. His successors Eleazar López Contreras (1935–1941) and Isaías Medina Angarita (1941–1945) initiated this process of social, economic, and political modernization not least by building a modern bureaucracy and formulating national development ideas (Banko 65; Zeuske, Von Bolívar). Under López Contreras, a new constitution was written, and the country’s first elections were prepared. In October 1945, the military forces overthrew the government. They were a younger generation of well-educated soldiers of the Unión Patriótica Militar. They established a short-dated military junta—the Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno—but called for general elections in December 1947. The social-democratic candidate Rómulo Gallegos of the Acción Democrática won those first free elections in Venezuela but was again overthrown by the likewise social-democratic-oriented Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno in November 1948. In the following 10 years, Venezuela was governed by a nondemocratic but development-oriented military junta (Zeuske, Von Bolívar 389–403). State and nation building was fostered by the plan to strengthen and to modernize national agriculture and to colonize the peripheral areas of the country.

So while Western Europe, the United States, and other countries, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union, on the other, established the international spatial order of the Cold War, Venezuela established a very distinctive national spatial order of a nation-state. The resettlement of European refugees and DPs in Venezuela became the result of a political translation of one spatial order into the other, and playing an active role in the IRO as an international organization ←250 | 251→may also have been beneficiary for Venezuela for showing presence in global diplomacy.

3.2Translating the Political “Portal of Globalization”

Director General to the General Council of the IRO Donald Kingsley’s institutional memoires (IRO 1951) as well as two of the earliest academic works about the IRO and the resettlement of the European refugees and DPs are the main references for the measurement of the IRO’s resettlement till the present. In 1953, the French sociologist Jacques Vernant published the first postwar survey of refugees and global resettlement, The Refugee in the Post-War World (Vernant). Three years later, in 1956, the German-born political scientist Louise Holborn, who had emigrated to the United States in 1934 and later became a professor at the Connecticut College for Women in New London, published The International Refugee Organization (Holborn). The most recent works about refugee resettlement during the early postwar years still refer to these three groundbreaking books, even if we cannot be sure that Kingsley, Vernant, and Holborn were able to access and overview all sources already in the early 1950s and if their cited statistics are accurate in all details.11 The few internationally published academic works mentioning resettlement in Venezuela also almost exclusively rely on those three sources regarding the statistical evaluation of the resettlement. Keith Yundt’s book about Latin American States and Political Refugees, published in 1988 is one example, and Henriette von Holleuffer’s article about the resettlement of European DPs in Latin America another one. Both texts are excellent historical works about the resettlement, but the history of the resettlement has so far mostly been told through the lens of the IRO. From this perspective, Venezuelan immigration policy reads like a reaction to the post–World War II European refugee situation.

From the Venezuelan academic perspective however, the resettlement program just blended into a long history of and political discourse about immigration. Underpopulation, the oil boom, and a strong sense of nation and state building and economic and social modernization resulted in an active immigration ←251 | 252→policy since 1935/36, the moment when Venezuelan politics overcame postindependence caudillismo and started developing a nation-state. Venezuela already actively supported European immigration before the establishment of IRO mission in 1947 (Berglund and Calimán; Veracoechea; Pellegrino).

The 1936 Ley de Inmigración y Colonización and the 1937 Ley de Extranjeros allowed for the immigration of not only European agriculturists, stockbreeders but also domestic workers, craftsmen, and engineers. Most immigrants in the late 1930s and the early 1940s came from Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Immigration from Spain was to be especially supported for reasons of language and assimilation, the immigration of nonwhite people was to be prevented as far as possible,12 and the immigration of Jews was to be limited but not prevented (Berglund and Calimán 43–44).13 In 1938, the Instituto Técnico de Inmigración y Colonización (ITIC) was founded to actively advance and organize immigration. The Medina Angarita government (1941–1945) was also already aware of the European situation and tried to translate it into a solution for Venezuela’s lack of manpower. They established the Comisión Nacional de Inmigración with the aim to study how Venezuela could benefit from the expected European exodus (Berglund and Calimán 43–44). The plan to attract European immigration did fail at this moment mainly due to expensive and insufficient transport across the Atlantic Ocean (Berglund and Calimán 43–44; Banko 65). Right after the end of World War II, Venezuela became aware that the moment had come; the “portal of globalization” had opened. In Venezuelan historiography, the end of the war was a sidenote and the fact that the expected moment had come, in which thousands or tens of thousands were uprooted and could be selected as immigrants, was the main storyline. The Venezuelan government did send three missions to Europe after 1945—one to France, one to Italy, and one to Germany—to start ←252 | 253→recruiting migrants with adequate training, especially agriculturists, domestic workers, mechanics, shoemakers, cooks, and carpenters (Berglund and Calimán 44). Thus, from the Venezuelan perspective, the resettlement did not start with the Western Allies’ resettlement plan and not with the establishment of the IRO. Venezuelans had been in Europe already to attract migrants according to their specific national demands.

The Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, on the other side, did establish two resettlement reception missions in Latin America in 1946 to investigate options for resettlement operations, one in Venezuela and one in Brazil (Yundt 31). In December 1946, the UN General Assembly approved the IRO constitution. Unsurprisingly, Venezuela voted in favor (32). In 1947, Venezuela signed an agreement with the IRO and did send another recruitment mission to Germany (38). According to Banko, the agreement said that 40 percent of the refugees and DPs to be resettled in Venezuela should be agriculturists, the rest mainly craftsmen and professionals of different sectors (66).

The arrival camps for refugees and DPs were the Hotel de Inmigrantes in El Guarataro, with a capacity to accommodate 450 persons, the Centro de Recepción in Sarría, able to harbor 340 immigrants, and the reception center “El Trompillo” in Güigüe, an old farm turned into a camp that could accommodate 2,500 refugees and DPs (Banko 66). According to Holborn and Vernant, between July 1947 and January 1952 approximately 17,000 to 17,500 European refugees and DPs were resettled in Venezuela through the IRO (see Tab. 2).14

Tab. 2:  Refugees and DPs Resettled in Venezuela 1947–1951. Sources: Holborn 442, Vernant 686.








Refugees and DPs leaving Europe for Venezuela according to Holborn







Refugees and DPs arriving in Venezuela from Europe according to Vernant







a In the case of 1947 the table shows the resettlement between July 1 and December 31. For 1948 to 1951, the reference period is January 1 till December 31. The number Vernant refers for 1951 also includes the January of 1952.←253 | 254→

Without discussing the accurateness of the numbers given, the table shows that the transition from the trienio period of democratic opening between October 1945 and November 1948 to the military dictatorship after the November 1948 coup d’état significantly lowered the IRO resettlement for European refugees and DPs in Venezuela, but it did not end the program that was negotiated during the short democratic period. Until the present, it has not been sufficiently investigated why the volume of the resettlement to Venezuela lowered that much directly after the military’s takeover of government. One reason may have been the new Venezuelan government itself. The military dictatorship valuated the ongoing immigration differently than the former democratic government and established new policies of immigration. After the November 1948 coup d’état, the ITIC was replaced by the Instituto Agrario Nacional (IAN) that also became responsible for the immigration (Pellegrino 199). One very important change in the context of Venezuela’s involvement in the resettlement was that the new government and the IAN began to focus on German immigrants as an “attractive” group of immigrants parallel to the ongoing resettlement (Veracoechea 266–67). Thus, only one and a half years after the IRO’s establishment, Venezuela developed a parallel immigration program independently from and contradictory to the resettlement program. Veracoechea also mentions the arrival of a German commission in Venezuela in 1950 that discussed the import of German industry and industrial know-how through the recruitment of German skilled workers as well as negotiations with the German priest Kurt Benach who travelled to Venezuela to discuss the immigration of 30 German families of farm workers.

Another reason could also be the IRO and its position toward the fundamental change in Venezuelan politics. It needs to be further investigated whether the IRO or certain IRO executives criticized the return to dictatorship in Venezuela and did send or recommend fewer refugees and DPs without ending resettlement in Venezuela totally, given that the IRO’s main goal still was to dispose the refugees and DPs from Europe and the time to fulfill this task ran out already. Finally, it is of course also plausible that fewer refugees and DPs wanted to be shipped to Venezuela after the country’s retransition to a military dictatorship. Having survived the National-Socialist regime in Europe or escaped the authoritarian regime in the Soviet Union or the fascist regime in Spain, the perspective to be resettled to a dictatorship may have been a very bad one. The case of the Hungarian refugee Charles Abaffy may serve as an example to illustrate this point. When Abaffy applied for IRO assistance together with his wife and son in August 1946, he had to answer several questions of the IRO’s so-called care-and-maintenance form. He wrote that he did not want to remain in Germany. Asked where he wanted to migrate to, he named Canada as his first preference, ←254 | 255→English-speaking countries such as South Africa or Australia as his second choice, and “South-American democratic States” as the third preference.15 This easily overlooked remark points out the agency of refugees and DPs in translating the resettlement as a solution for their problems.

It can be summarized that the resettlement regime created to administer the migration of European refugees and DPs to Venezuela cannot be fully explained through the IRO perspective. A broader understanding needs to consider the translation of two totally different but simultaneous spatial orders into that migration regime. The post-caudillismo spatial order of nation building through immigration in Venezuela met the post–World War II spatial order of stabilizing Western Europe as the border region to the Iron Curtain. Both spatial orders followed different logics but both actors—the Venezuelan governments and the Western international community—were able to reciprocally translate those spatial orders into their own ones. Neither humanism nor the Cold War played a role for Venezuela to participate in the resettlement project. The Cold War did not become a political priority in Venezuela till 1953, when president Pérez Jiménez declared the fight against communism a centerpiece of Venezuelan politics (Zeuske, Kleine 157).

4The Translation of the Resettlement as a Social Space of Migration

Until today, research about the European postwar resettlement in general, and therefore also in Venezuela, is based on intelligent guesses in certain facets. The refugees and DPs themselves as protagonists in the resettlement program have barely been investigated so far. Historians and social scientists wrote about the question who those migrants were who came to Venezuela with the help of the IRO, but nobody has yet researched this question in depth. Pellegrino assumes that while the ITIC and the IAN tried to foster the immigration of agriculturists, many refugees and DPs probably claimed to be farmers just to be able to leave Europe (186). Holborn follows this line of reasoning (147). Certain indicators make this assumption indeed very probable. Census data show for example that most immigrants lived either in the Capital district or larger cities and thus suggest that most immigrants did not permanently settle in the agricultural periphery of the country but in the cities (Veracoechea 286). Veracoechea however shows at the same time that the ITIC did establish new agricultural ←255 | 256→colonies in 1947 and 1948 with Venezuelan farmers and European refugees and DPs (263–64). She names at least twelve such colonies.

There are historical sources however that help to reveal both the actual time–space development of the resettlement within Venezuela and the social profiles of the refugees and DPs that were resettled to Venezuela as well as their desires and strategies of migration. First, many of the IRO’s embarkation lists are archived in the collection of the archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen. The same archive holds thousands of IRO records, such as the care-and-maintenance documents—the so-called CM-1 files of the IRO. Refugees and DPs had to fill in those forms to apply for assistance by the IRO. Those files reveal information about who the refugees and DPs were, about their aspired destinations and strategies of migration, as well as about how the IRO’s officials on the ground did translate resettlement from idea into practice. Finally, the ITS’s archive contains the ITS’s tracing-and-documentation files. In case someone requested information about refugees and DPs at the ITS long after the ending of the resettlement program, the archive documented all available paperwork on those persons in these files.

Those historical sources have generally not been systematically looked at, not only for the Venezuelan case. We are currently preparing to investigate those sources with regard to the interaction between the IRO and its staff on the ground, various governments and nongovernmental organizations, and the DPs themselves. While it is not yet possible to draw on the results of this investigation here, the analytical value of those sources as well as the outline of future research can be discussed.

4.1The Development of the Resettlement through Space and Time

The example of one single embarkation list may demonstrate the analytical value of those sources. On December 12, 1949, the US-American troopship USAT General S.D. Sturgis left Bremerhaven in Germany toward Chile and Venezuela. The transport was one of the many IRO mass resettlement passages. On board were 598 European refugees and DPs: 421 of them were on their way to be resettled in Chile, 177 had embarked on a voyage to Venezuela. Among the refugees and DPs heading for Venezuela, 71 were male adults, 59 female adults, 38 children aged between 2 and 10 years while 11 children aboard were under the age of 2. The transport basically consisted of families.16 Among the female refugees and ←256 | 257→DPs most were declared as housewives in the Embarkation Nominal Roll handed over in Bremerhaven, two of them were declared as nurses, and one as a dressmaker.17 The declared occupations of the male passengers were very diverse. Only three of them were declared famers, seven were listed as mechanics, five as electricians, four as shoemakers and four as workers, three as carpenters, three as tailors, three as blacksmiths, two as gardeners, two as locksmiths, two as masons, two as turners, two as draftsmen, two as watchmakers, and the rest of the male passengers had six other declared occupations.18 All travelers of the passage were either catholic or protestant. Most adults were listed as born in Eastern Europe—Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland, the USSR, the CZE, Estonia, and Latvia—except for some accompanying wives who were listed as born in Germany. Many of the children were born in Germany, too. The oldest passenger was the farmer Alexander Ignatenko, aged 53, who travelled with his wife Xenia and their 17-year-old son Konstantin.19 This random list of people already indicates that a systematical analysis of the mass resettlement to Venezuela will add a lot of information about who those migrants actually were.

The IRO’s resettlement program is mainly narrated through either aggregated statistics or very individual stories. Most often statistical references mirror the whole IRO project’s existence; thus, we broadly know how many people were resettled between 1947 and 1951 or 1952 altogether, and by the same token numbers can be broken down to single years.20 The systematical analysis of the shipping lists instead promises information about the “real-time” development of the resettlement project across time and space (Bondzio et al. 38). On this basis, the development of the program itself can be appropriately contextualized within the poles of the IRO’s mission and the destination countries’ political development, and with a focus on those people on the move (Bondzio et al.). Second, those documents will help to answer the key question, who finally migrated ←257 | 258→within the project when and whereto, independently from what we know about whom the destination countries wanted to attract. Third, the documents will help to answer the question, how different places of origin and destination were linked through the migration patterns caused by the resettlement scheme. And fourth, by knowing the migrants’ personal information from the rolls, we can finally even start to investigate who they were and what happened to them after the IRO lost track through their documentation. Did they remain in Venezuela, for example, or did they migrate again, somewhere else in the Americas or back to Europe? Did they relocate to cities or did they remain in the rural periphery as initially intended by the Venezuelan government? Did they manage to establish new lives? Did they integrate into the societies of the destination countries?

What did those refugees and DPs thus experience, who were these people who got uprooted during World War II or its aftermath and now found themselves celebrating Christmas 1949 together on the General S.D. Sturgis on their way to the newly established military dictatorship in Venezuela, how did they get access to the IRO resettlement program, what had determined their path, and how did their lives go on after arrival?

4.2Analyzing the Social “Portal of Globalization”

Tracing the IRO and ITS records of some of the passengers of the cited Embarkation Roll helps to reconstruct parts of the refugees’ and DPs’ stories, to interpret the resettlement rather as migration history instead of institutional or diplomatic history.21 We cannot reconstruct passengers’ stories in every detail here, but exemplarily illustrate how the CM-1 files help to understand how refugees and DPs translated the spatial order(s) and the social space of the resettlement into a solution for their personal “crisis,” how they “identified themselves to a bureaucracy” (Afoumado 218), and how they translated the resettlement as a “portal of globalization.” Likewise, the documents help to answer a question nobody has raised so far: how did the IRO officers act within the institutional framework of the resettlement program when processing and deciding their cases?

The CM-1 files as well as other IRO records may first serve to empirically prove the assumption that Venezuela (or Latin American countries in general) ←258 | 259→was not the refugees’ and DPs’ first choice for resettlement. Holborn calls this the “second choice” phenomenon (137). Interviews with DPs from all over the world are one suitable source to answer questions on the DPs own agency to move within the physical and social space of the resettlement program. The documents of the ITS archive however can provide a much larger empirical basis to analyze the agency of the DPs to get access to resettlement in general and to then have the choice to be resettled in their desired destination.

Ernest Chrenovsky, born in Czechoslovakia in 1928, named the United States or Canada as countries of first preference when he was interviewed by an IRO eligibility officer to prove his entitlement to IRO assistance.22 His CM-1 file does not contain information about why—contrary to his own hopes—he ended up on the ship to Venezuela on December 12, 1949, but he did. Alois Markech, born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, boarded the same ship after putting on record that he desired to be resettled to Australia.23 Their fellow traveler Sandor Varga likewise had claimed Australia as his desired destination.24 When Jan Sulyan, born in Czechoslovakia in 1911, applied for IRO assistance to be resettled for political reasons in August 1949 together with his wife and their two children, they stated that they did not yet know where they would like to be resettled to.25 He told the IRO office that he had to flee from Czechoslovakia in 1948 for political reasons and the officer classified him as eligible for resettlement. Less than 4 months later the family were passengers on the “General Sturgis” to be resettled in Venezuela. Some corresponding files to the “General Sturgis” embarkation roll however indicate that there were people who desired to be resettled in Venezuela explicitly. For example, Lajos Rigo, born in Hungary in 1920, named Venezuela as his desired destination, when he was registered as a DP in February 1949.26 Only 10 months later he was resettled while hundreds of thousands of refugees and DPs—with many of them having applied for assistance earlier than Rigo—were ←259 | 260→still waiting for their passage. The document does not reveal, however, if he knew of the coup d’état that happened in Venezuela 4 months earlier.

Another important question concerns the declared occupations of the refugees and DPs. While Chrenovsky was listed as a presser on the cited Embarkation Nominal Roll from December 1949, for example, his Refugee/Displaced Person Statistical Card, filled out in Fallingbostel, Germany, in June 1949 says that he was a waiter.27 It is very unlikely, that he was trained in a new profession within a few months. His fellow traveler Harald Lindner was identified as a photographer and business man on his IRO Statistical Card from April 1948.28 The cited Embarkation Nominal Roll of the General Sturgis from December 1949 listed him as a mechanic. It is possible that he was trained as a mechanic during the 18-month period between April 1948 and December 1949. It is however also possible that he was able to act in the social space of resettlement by changing his own biography to be able to pass the “portal of globalization.” This is another topic that needs to be analyzed more empirically: the question, if and to what extent the refugees and DPs themselves were able to reinvent their own biographies to increase their chances to be resettled or if the IRO officers did.

The IRO files also reveal a lot of information about how the IRO officers translated the IRO’s institutional task on the ground into practices and therewith co-created the social space of resettlement. The documents thereby prove among other things that the officers acted within a wide scope and were able to leave their marks on the social space of resettlement.

Alois Markech, for example, born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, escaped from Ostrava in the Czech Republic in April 1949, crossed the German border (illegally), and applied for IRO assistance in Amberg, Germany, during the same month. He claimed to have risked being sent to a labor camp for having refused to join the Communist Party, wherefore he decided to escape to Germany. The IRO’s Child Care Officer in Amberg approved his application on August 25, 1949, noting that Markech was a “normal, young health [sic!] sound boy,” who “seems to be honest” and “would like to emigrate to Australia.”29 The cited ITS file does not tell the story why the 20-year-old Markech ended up being a passenger of the “General Sturgis” leaving Bremerhaven for Venezuela in December 1949. The ←260 | 261→example tells us, however, how subjectively decisions in the resettlement process may have been drawn and that this decision-making did not totally or always stay within the IRO’s mandate. According to the IRO’s constitution, Markech did not really qualify as a DP as he was no victim of displacement during World War II nor a victim of the National Socialists’ crimes.30 He translated the social space of resettlement into his chance to escape the Communist Eastern Bloc in 1949 and the IRO officer translated the same social space into an area of action according to his subjective impression of the applicant and his own ideology.31


In this chapter, we argued that the history of the IRO and the resettlement program has basically been written from a Eurocentric perspective and second with a strong focus on postwar politics and the IRO as an organization while the actors who actually translated the idea of resettlement into a practice largely remain in the dark. The resettlement project was based on a vision on how to solve a “refugee crisis” which was perceived in a specific way by the just-emerging United Nations who wrote the IRO’s constitution and agreed to finance the resettlement scheme. This does, however, neither explain how certain destination countries translated the program according to their history and politics nor does it shed any light on the actual people involved who translated the program into a personal, social “portal of globalization,” namely the IRO’s eligibility officers as well as the migrants themselves.

From the perspective of Venezuelan immigration history, the resettlement of European refugees and DPs was one of many episodes, but not even a highlight or a critical juncture (Middell and Naumann). In the Venezuelan historiography of immigration, neither the end of World War II nor the beginning of a new phase of the Cold War is perceived as turning points, but rather changing spatial and political orders in Venezuelan history itself, namely the postindependence and pre-1936 caudillismo with no concept of a nation-state, the post-1936 development of a spatial concept of a nation-state and internal agricultural colonialization, and finally the November 1948 coup d’état. It is not wrong when ←261 | 262→Holleuffer concludes that Venezuela—like all other Latin American countries—“took part in the joint venture of global resettlement work” (Holleuffer 154), but the reason was less the “willingness to accept responsibility within the network of the newly established United Nations” (154) or the result of a “global system of humanitarian-based population transfer” (133), but rather the result of a translation of whatever was considered as the European humanitarian crisis by other actors into their own concept of spatial order and politics.

From analyzing the not yet systematically investigated IRO documents—namely the embarkment rolls and the care-and-maintenance documents of those refugees and DPs on the embarkment rolls—in the future, we expect empirically validated answers to important open questions about the resettlement program. Who were those refugees and DPs that were resettled in Venezuela between 1947 and 1952, what was their story, why did they end up in Venezuela, and to what extent were they able to influence the processes that brought them there? The CM-1 files thereby also relate the untold story of the IRO officer’s actions and agency. As the flip side of the coin, they negotiated resettlement with the refugees and DPs by interpreting the IRO’s mission and the refugees’ and DPs’ histories, narrations, and desires.

To avoid reconstructing the resettlement to Venezuela only as a history of emigration from Europe, but as migration history including the immigration to Venezuela and the further life of the refugees and DPs, we finally also intend to trace their stories in Venezuela. How did they build new lives overseas? How did they integrate into Venezuelan society? How and why did some of them transmigrate? Where did they go, when, and why? How did they cope with the changing and probably unexpected political reality in Venezuela and did they finally even establish a transnational social space of migration (Faist, “Transnational”; Faist, The Transnational)?

The twofold translation of the resettlement as a “portal of globalization” created a specific transnational physical and social space of migration. On the political level, Venezuela translated the program into a part of its own state and nation building project. On the bureaucratic level, the IRO’s officers on the ground translated the program into a policy. And from the perspective of migration history, the refugees and DPs translated the program into the chance to start new lives and to even partly reinvent themselves. The sketched goal of our future research is to overcome both the eurocentrism of the history of the IRO and the resettlement project by including Venezuelan immigration history and politics into the picture and overcoming either the eurocentrism of analyzing the refugees’ and DPs’ stories in Europe or the methodological nationalism to study their stories only in Venezuela.←262 | 263→

The documents of the ITS archive may allow reconstructing the life and migration histories of many of those alleged 17,000 refugees and DPs who were resettled in Venezuela between 1947 and 1952. This is however only the history of an emigration within the social space of the resettlement between Europe and Venezuela. From the perspective of migration history, the question remains open: what happened to the refugees and DPs after the IRO lost their tracks in the so-called European embarkment centers? The IRO’s files lose track of the migrants after their embarkation in Europe. The IRO’s embarkation lists are the link within the reconstruction of the refugees’ and DPs’ stories from the perspective of migration history. Some of the ITS’s tracing-and-documentation files may serve as sources to answer the question what happened to those refugees and DPs after their voyage to Venezuela. An inevitable step however is to continue the investigation in Venezuela to approximate the question of how people moved and acted within the specific social and physical space that the resettlement program had opened. Tracing the legacy of the refugees and DPs in Venezuela and searching for signs of a transnational social space of migration are therefore the final steps of our intended investigation.

Catalina Banko’s recently published article about immigrants from Eastern Europe in Venezuela reveals opportunities to access this part of the story: the question what happened to the refugees and DPs in Venezuela within the spectrum of assimilation, ethnic pluralism, and transnational social spaces (Faist, “Transnational” 214). According to Banko, the different national refugee and DP groups first linked themselves to earlier migrants with similar national backgrounds. They met established communities and thus were often not pioneers. They also soon started organizing themselves in social networks such as associations and cultural and social clubs to help each other, on the one hand, and to preserve cultural heritage and traditions, on the other (Banko 68). The Hungarian refugees and DPs founded the Casa Húngara as a social and cultural club and meeting place for social events. In 1975, the Casa Húngara opened its own kindergarten for the children of the former Hungarian refugees and DPs (69). This fact alone tells a lot about the specific transnational social space of migration. Roughly 25 years after the resettlement, social and cultural ties between the former refugees and DPs seem to have persisted, many of them seem to have stayed in Venezuela and established new lives with children, etc. The Croatian refugees and DPs founded Caritas Croatia already in 1948, later the Asociación Croata de Venezuela, the Comité Croata de Venezuela, and in 1962 social club Hogar Croata that exists until today (71). Also Slovenian, Rumanian, and Bulgarian refugees and DPs founded social clubs and networks, although their number was much smaller (71–73).←263 | 264→

The former Hungarian refugees and DPs finally also organized manifestations and political campaigns during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and organized the immigration of about 1,000 Hungarians to Venezuela in 1957 (Banko 70). Thus, the refugees and DPs did not lose sight of their former home countries and countrymen, a sign for the establishment of a transnational social space of migration (Faist, “Transnational”; Faist, The Transnational). Banko concludes that the European refugees and DPs were integrated into the Venezuelan society over the decades; many of them became members of the middle class, but at the same time they preserved their transnational social spaces of resettlement. Her research demonstrates the possibility to continue the story of the post–World War II refugees and DPs that left Europe for Venezuela between 1947 and 1951/1952 to view it not only as a history of European emigration and international diplomacy but also as a transnational migration history of people on the move.

Primary Sources

AEF DP Registration Record, Alois Markech, 25.8.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

AEF DP Registration Record, Lajos Rigo, 28.2.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

Constitution of the International Refugee Organization, December 15, 1946, cited from Forschungsstelle für Völkerrecht und ausländisches öffentliches Recht der Universität Hamburg (ed.) (1950): Satzung der Internationalen Flüchtlingsorganisation (IRO), Frankfurt am Main: Wolfgang Metzner Verlag, pp. 10–24.

Embarkation Nominal Roll for IRO Group Resettlement from Bremerhaven to Chile and Venezuela, 12.12.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

IRO (1951): Migration from Europe: A Report of Experience, Geneva: IRO.

IRO Application for Assistance, Charles Abaffy, 23.8.1946, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

IRO Application for Assistance, Ernest Chrenovsky, 13.5.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

IRO Application for Assistance, Jan Sulyan, 24.8.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

IRO Application for Assistance, Sandor Varga, 24.8.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.←264 | 265→

IRO Closed Case Record, Alois Markech, 27.4.1951, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

IRO Statistical Card, Austria, Harald Lindner, 30.4.1948, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.


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1IRO resettled 32,712 people in Argentina, 28,848 in Brazil, and 17,277 in Venezuela (Holborn 433).

2This observation thereby regards research about the resettlement program, not about the DPs themselves. Their living conditions and their agency in the DP camps has been researched, for example.

3Social space of the resettlement in this case means that the program provided a space of rules and opportunities in which all participating actors (the DPs and refugees as well as the IRO officers and the representatives of the receiving countries) were able to move according to their economic, social, and cultural capital, in terms of Bourdieu. Some DPs and refugees were able to use economic capital to be resettled or to be able to choose a certain destination, some were able to mobilize social capital in form of relations, and some were able to mobilize cultural capital as they were able to better “sell” themselves or to explain their cases better to the IRO than other DPs and to insist on the processing of their cases in long correspondences.

4At this point, the personnel files of IRO eligibility officers have not yet been located in the National Archives of France that preserve the remaining IRO files.

5The IRO’s constitution defined refugees as “(a) victims of the Nazi or fascist regimes or of regimes which took part on their side in the second world war, or of the quisling or similar regimes which assisted them against the United Nations, whether enjoying international status as refugees or not; (b) Spanish Republicans and other victims of the Falangist regime in Spain, whether enjoying international status as refugees or not; (c) persons who were considered refugees before the outbreak of the second world war, for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion.” Displaced Persons were defined as follows: “The term ‘displaced person’ applies to a person who, as a result of the actions of the authorities of the regimes mentioned in Part I, section A, paragraph 1 (a) of this Annex has been deported from or has been obliged to leave his country of nationality or of former habitual residence, such as persons who were compelled to undertake forced labour or who were deported for racial, religious or political reasons (Constitution of the International Refugee Organization, Annex 1: Definitions—General Principles, Section A: Definition of Refugees and Section B—Definition of Displaced Persons).

6For our understanding of migration regime, see Rass and Wolff.

7For the geostrategical aspect of the resettlement program against the background of the Cold War, see also Jacobmeyer; Marrus 340–45; Gatrell; Cohen, “Between”; Cohen, In War’s; Salomon. Both interpretations of the resettlement program—humanism and politically calculated decisions—are thereby not necessarily mutually exclusive at the end. The less-humanistic pre-resettlement idea of repatriation could have had the same geostrategical outcome of stabilizing social and political conditions on the Western side of the Iron Curtain.

8Ministerio de Relaciones Interiores de Venezuela (1831): “Memoria y Cuenta,” qtd. in Berglund and Calimán 19; translated from Spanish by the authors.

9For a definition of Dutch disease and its importance in the case of Venezuela, see Burchardt.

10The oil industry itself offered employment possibilities, but Anzoátegui, Zulia, and Monagas, the main oil-producing Venezuelan states, also became centers of population, commerce, and suppliers to the oil industry (Pellegrino 184).

11We do not intend to diminish the authors’ achievements by any means. The three books were and still are groundbreaking and Kingsley’s, Holborn’s, and Vernant’s effort recorded the then-knowledge about the IRO and the resettlement and transferred it to the present. Given that the IRO’s mission was planned short-term and that its bureaucracy was quite improvised, a lot of knowledge about the project would be lost today without Kingsley’s, Holborn’s, and Vernant’s works.

12Regarding the discussion and the partly racist intellectual ideas about immigration after President Gómez’ death, see also Salas (133–35).

13The cases of the steamboats Königstein and Caribia gained a certain prominence concerning Venezuela’s role in granting asylum to Jewish European refugees during the National-Socialist regime. Both ships carried Jewish refugees to the Americas in 1939, hoping for acceptance of the refugees in the British colonies of Trinidad and British Guiana. When the British however denied asylum to the refugees for bureaucratic reasons, Venezuela allowed the Jewish refugees to disembark and granted them asylum (Caestecker and Moore 278). Vernant names the “typical” professions of Jewish European refugees and DPs as the reason for their low number among the immigrants in Venezuela rather than anti-Semitic reasons (687). Most of them weren’t farm workers and therefore not among those migrants preferred by the Venezuelan government and missions.

14Banko names June 27, 1947, as the date of arrival of the first ship with 850 refugees and DPs coming from Bremen (probably Bremerhaven) in the harbor of La Guaira (67).

15IRO Application for Assistance, Charles Abaffy, 23.8.1946, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

16Embarkation Nominal Roll for IRO Group Resettlement from Bremerhaven to Chile and Venezuela, 12.12.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

17It is important to note that some refugees and DPs may either have misrepresented themselves before the IRO according to what they did know about preferred occupations in the destination countries of the resettlement or that maybe even IRO employees passed refugees and DPs off as specialists in certain fields. Nevertheless, the declared occupations on the Embarkment Rolls are the “official” occupations the DPs and refugees were resettled with.

18Embarkation Nominal Roll for IRO Group Resettlement from Bremerhaven to Chile and Venezuela, 12.12.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.


20Those data are most often cited from either Vernant’s book published in 1953 or Holborn’s book published in 1956.

21Not all passengers’ CM-1 files are preserved in the ITS archive or they have never been digitalized respectively. Nevertheless, the ITS Digital Archive contains information about several refugees and DPs who were passengers of the General Sturgis and left Bremerhaven on December 12, 1949, toward Venezuela.

22IRO Application for Assistance, Ernest Chrenovsky, 13.5.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

23AEF DP Registration Record. Supplementary Record—Face Sheet, Alois Markech, 25.8.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

24IRO Application for Assistance, Sandor Varga, 7.7.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

25IRO Application for Assistance, Jan Sulyan, 24.8.1949, ITS Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

26AEF DP Registration Record, Lajos Rigo, 28.2.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

27Refugee/Displaced Person Statistical Card, Ernest Chrenovsky, 29.7.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

28IRO Statistical Card, Austria, Harald Lindner, 30.4.1948, ITS Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

29AEF DP Registration Record. Supplementary Record—Face Sheet, Alois Markech, 25.8.1949, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.

30Constitution of the International Refugee Organization 1946.

31The ITS file also reveals, by the way, that somebody asked the IRO (or maybe the ITS) for help to find Markech in 1949 already. The Child Care Division closed the tracing case in April 1951, confirming that Markech had left Germany toward Venezuela in December 1949. IRO Closed Case Record, Alois Markech, 27.4.1951, Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen.←267 | 268→←268 | 269→