Refugees and Resettlement Chronology


Displaced family in a refugee camp in Germany around 1951. Used with permission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

1932, 8 November. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected President of the United States.

1933, 30 January. Adolf Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany, thus coming to power by legitimate, legal means.

1933. Archbishop John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati sends out a letter to his clergy expressing protest and indignation over the persecution of Jews in Germany. The letter is one of the earliest statements of protest from the American hierarchy over anti-Semitism in Germany, and McNicholas remains an outspoken opponent of oppression throughout World War II (Boyea, 262).

1935, 15 September. The German Reichstag unanimously passes the Nuremberg Laws, which prohibit marriage or intercourse between Jews and Germans, as well as curtailing the rights of Jews within Germany in other ways.

1936-39. The Spanish Civil War, between the Soviet-aided Republicans and Franco’s Nationalists, results in a wave of anti-clerical violence and is heavily covered by the American Catholic press, solidifying anti-Communist sentiment among American Catholics.

1937, 1 January. The NCWC establishes the New York office of the Committee for Catholic Refugees from Germany, with Fr. Ostermann as director, in preparation for the ever-growing wave of refugees it anticipates from Germany.

1937, March 14. Pope Pius XI issues the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Sorrow) condemning Nazism and urging German Catholics to be courageous in standing against it.

1937, May 11. The Episcopal Committee for the Care of Catholic Refugees from Germany decides to exclude the German immigrant priest H.A. Reinhold from their organizational efforts to aid refugees, on the grounds that he is too controversial and inflammatory because of his previous strong statements against Nazism.

1937, November 18. The US Bishops issue a “Letter to the German Hierarchy” which condemns, in non-specific terms, the Nazis’ persecution of religion, without specifically mentioning their persecution of the Jews.

1938, November 9-10. Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) in Germany, a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms that involved the destruction or damage of thousands of Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues, and the arrest of 30,000 Jewish men.

1938, November 16. Catholic University releases a national broadcast by six American Catholic leaders condemning the events in Germany and expressing sympathy and support for the Jews.

1938, November 20. Father Charles Coughlin, the “Radio Priest”, delivers one of his most controversial and offensive broadcasts, in which he alleges that German Jews partially brought Kristallnacht on themselves because of their ties to Communism.

1939, 3 September. The United Kingdom, France, Australia and New Zealand declare war on Germany in response to its overt aggression and invasion of Poland.

1939, December 24. In the face of impending war, Pope Pius XII announces his plan for a just peace, which includes the assertions that one nation cannot live at the expense of another nation, and that the right of all nations, peoples and ethnic minorities to exist must be protected.

1941, January 6. President Roosevelt delivers his famous “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress, in which he describes four freedoms essential to every human being in the world: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.



Refugees board a boat for America which is decorated with a banner reading "International Refugee Organization," the UNHCR's forerunner. Circa 1951. Used with permission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

1941, December 8. The United States and Britain declare war on Japan in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany declares war on the United States a few days later.

1941, December 16. The Bishops’ Committee on the Papal Peace Points meets to reiterate that even as American Catholics are preparing for war with Japan and Germany, they must bear in mind that their ultimate goal should be a just peace.

1942, 1 June. The British Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA) is established, initially to care for Greek, Yugoslav, and Albanian refugees. MERRA often works in concert with the OFRRO.

1942, 18 November. The Office of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation Operations is established under the auspices of President Roosevelt. The OFRRO’s first endeavor was providing food, medicine, and employment (assisting the US military) for refugees in North Africa.

1943, 19-30 April. Anglo-American Refugee Conference is held in Bermuda. At this conference, the Inter-governmental Committee on Refugees announces its firm intention to aid refugees of any race or creed, so long as these activities do not hinder military operations. Nonetheless, many Jewish groups are displeased with the results, feeling that the Bermuda Conference sidestepped the issue of Nazi persecution of Jews.

1943, November 9. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration  was founded for the purpose of arranging temporary shelter for Displaced Persons and providing them with food, medical aid,  and assistance in returning to their home countries. “United Nations” at that time was used to mean the Allied nations of World War II, not the transnational institution we know today, which would not come into being until after the war.

1945, February 4-11. The Yalta conference between the “Big Three”, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, is held in the Crimea. This conference agreed, among other things, to British, French, American, and Soviet zones of influence in occupied Germany, and is often seen as controversial because it countenanced the Soviets’ installation of a Communist-run government in Poland, leading, it is argued, to further Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe.

1945, Spring. Allied and Soviet troops liberate concentration camps as they move deep into German territory in the final phases of World War II.

1945, May 8. V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe.

1945, July 16. The first atomic bomb in history is detonated in a test by US researchers in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The bomb was specifically intended for military use in the final stages of World War II.

1945, August 14. Following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima, on August 6, and on Nagasaki, on August 9, as well as the conventional firebombing of many major Japanese cities, the Japanese announce their surrender.

1945, 24 October. The United Nations officially comes into existence when a majority of participating nations, including the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, ratify a charter that had been drawn up at the San Francisco Conference that summer. The NCWC decides that the UN, founded out of a general, non-religious support for human rights, is not a perfect organization, but that they will cautiously cooperate with it nonetheless.

1945, 22 December. President Truman issues a Directive to resettle displaced persons in the United States, which will later be enabled by further legislation.

1946, February. Francis J. Spellman, in his first magazine article after his elevation to Cardinal, announces that “Communism is Unamerican” and that he will engage in “no conspiracy of silence” simply because the Soviets were former allies of the US during World War II.

1946, 5 March. Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech coins a key phrase of the Cold War and marks the Western nations’ turn away from viewing the Soviets as allies. Churchill speaks of an Iron Curtain descending across Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Behind the Iron Curtain were many Eastern European nations, meaning that refugees from those nations often no longer wished to return to their Communist-dominated homelands.

1946, July 10. The US President’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid is organized to act as liaison between private charitable organizations such as the NCWC, US government bureaucracies, and international organizations such as the IRO.

1946, 15 December. The UN General Assembly votes to adopt the constitution of the new International Refugee Organization, which will take over the tasks of the UNRRA. The initial annual budget for the IRO is $161,000,000.

1947, 8-10 May. US and British forces carry out Operation Eastwind, the forcible repatriation, from camps in Italy, of Soviet ex-POWs who had subsequently collaborated with their captors and fought in German ranks. The US guards transporting the Soviet personnel took special cautions to ensure that they did not commit suicide out of desperation.

1947, October 9-10. Catholic Charities in the United States passes a resolution, at their annual meeting, appealing to the US government for an extension of its refugee aid program, since the US government had been planning to close the refugee camps in Europe shortly. Catholic Charities also calls for “heroic effort and sacrifice on the part of all Catholics” in the effort to aid refugees.

1947-51. The planned and mass-produced suburb of Levittown, the first of its kind in the nation, is constructed outside New York City. In the postwar years, droves of Americans would move from the inner city to the new suburbs, marking the breakup of many ethnic Catholic communities that had thrived in the inner city. People also moved to the suburbs to be farther from target areas in case of nuclear war with the Soviets.

1948, July 1. President Truman approves legislation which will allow 205,000 Displaced Persons, primarily those fleeing from their now Communist-dominated homelands in Eastern Europe, into the United States, in a time period extending from then until June 30, 1950.


1949, March. American author Paul Blanshard issues the book American Freedom and Catholic Power, which quickly becomes a bestseller. Blanshard claims that Communism and Catholicism both advocate the same kind of mindless obedience to authority figures, and that both are incompatible with the “true” American spirit of freedom. As the Cold War goes on, overtly anti-Catholic expressions of this kind will become rarer.

1949, August 29. The Soviets successfully detonate their first nuclear device in a test in Kazakhstan, establishing the possibility of a nuclear war between the US and the USSR, and greatly heightening Cold War tensions. 

1950, February 9. Senator Joseph McCarthy, in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, claims that Communists have massively infiltrated the State Department, beginning a five-year-long anti-Communist witch hunt which targets prominent cultural, political, and academic figures and contributes to the atmosphere of paranoia prevalent in American society at the time

1950, June 24. Start of the Korean War, a “proxy war” over whether Communism or democracy would be dominant in the world theater, with the Soviet Union backing North Korea, and US troops aiding South Korea (including some former Displaced Persons)

1951. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees succeeds the International Refugee Organization as the transnational body tasked with the care of refugees. In Western Europe, it becomes responsible for the over 1 million refugees from World War II still remaining in camps.

1952, February 11. The International Refugee Organization formally concludes its program of aiding the displaced persons and German refugees created by the upheavals of World War II.

1952, August 31. The United States’ Displaced Persons Commission, responsible for the implementation of the Displaced Persons Act, concludes its program of aid and disbands at the date specified by the legislation which created it.

1953, 5 March. Ruthless Soviet leader Josef Stalin dies, possibly assassinated by another high-ranking official. He oversaw and personally encouraged innumerable human rights violations within the Soviet Union, and his death marks the beginning of a gradual easing of Soviet policy towards political prisoners.

1953, 27 July. The Korean War ends with an armistice between the United Nations Command, including US forces, and North Korean and Chinese forces.

1953. The National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Bureau of Immigration, established in 1920, is made into a separate department to accommodate its increasing responsibilities. Bruce M. Mohler remains the director.

1954. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work with refugees in postwar Europe.

1955. Flannery O’Connor, whose style is often characterized as Southern gothic, publishes her collection of fiction A Good Man is Hard to Find, which includes the short story “The Displaced Person.”

1955, 17 September. The USSR declares an amnesty for all Soviet citizens who had “collaborated” with German forces during World War II, collaboration being anything other than fighting to the death against them. Previously, many Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans had been given sentences of twenty years or more in Siberia. The declaration was part of Nikita Khrushchev’s efforts to distance himself from Stalin’s legacy.