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Interest in Escapee Program

American Christopher Uebelhor spent four days at the International Tracing Service (ITS) perusing documents on the Escapee Program. “I am fascinated by the history of the Cold War, which explains my interest in the program” said Uebelhor, who is currently studying at the University of Leuven in Belgium. “At the ITS I hope to find references to the number of people accepted into the program, who they were and where they were from.”

The US government launched the “Escapee Program” in 1952 to rehabilitate and resettle refugees from Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. New refugees who were able to escape from behind the Iron Curtain were also included in the program, as well as those who had been languishing in Displaced Persons (DP) camps since the end of the Second World War. “Some of these people seemed to have been in DP camps for years,” reported Uebelhor. “The Escapee Program basically continues the measures for those willing to emigrate. It was only given a nicer-sounding name.”

The Americans described the program in Cold War parlance as a “humanitarian endeavor.” It cooperated with social and church organizations as well as with the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration. The German coordination office was located in Frankfurt am Main, which the Americans used to send thousands of inquiries to the Tracing Service in order to examine refugees´ backgrounds. “The ITS was a source used to screen people; a vast amount of paperwork,” said Uebelhor. “They seemed to be people from all walks of life regarding their families, ages or jobs. Most of them cited political reasons for their escape.”

The ITS archive was hardly able to keep up with the total number of inquiries. During the first year of the program over 7,400 were received. There was no information on many refugees, as the ITS only has documents from the Nazi era and the immediate post-war period. As a result, numerous files which had been set up were once again destroyed.

The “Escapee Program” led to speculation that it perhaps also served to recruit spies and was used for anti-Communist propaganda. “I wasn´t able to find any documentation at the ITS. I´ll have to do some research in the USA, where I will try to find out more background information on the program, including its size and criteria after refugees were recognized and had received immigration support,” said Uebelhor. Like DPs in previous years, participants in the program were welcomed in the USA, Canada or Australia. Their names are marked on emigration lists in the ITS archive with the reference “USEP” (United States Escapee Program).