4 Famous Recipients of the Nansen Passport, the Travel Document Created for Refugees
By Emma Jacobs
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
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
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.