The ‘unmarried mother’: Single-mother families in displaced persons camps in post-World War II Austria
Picture reproduced with permission from the National Archives of Australia: A12111, 1/1947/15/10.
The end of World War II resulted in the displacement of millions of people all over war-torn Europe, finding themselves in dire need of protection and assistance. Among the former forced labourers, concentration camp survivors, prisoners of war and so-called ‘infiltrees’ were also single mothers. Many were displaced alone, others were uprooted together with their families.
Studies on the refugee situation in post-World War II Europe have already shown that both the management of care and relief and the organisation of resettlement schemes were highly gendered. This article takes a gendered perspective on the case study of Natalia S. which will allow an exploration of gender biases within the management of migration at that time.
After the war had ended, so-called Assembly Centres or Displaced Persons Camps, administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), were created in Austria, Germany, France and Italy. In those camps, displaced persons found assistance and waited for their repatriation or for the opportunity to emigrate. Archives show that the UNRRA and later the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) gathered information on the displaced persons’ heterogenous biographies of migration. In order to receive assistance, every displaced person had to give information on their personal history of persecution, professional skills, national background, age and health condition, as well as family history and marital status. All this information was filed by the authorities and played a role in the decision on whether displaced persons were able to emigrate to one of the wished-for receiving countries, such as the US, Canada, Australia or Great Britain.
Within the administrative process of managing migration at the end of World War II, displaced women were often categorised as accompanying family members, particularly reflected in documents registering displaced persons, rather than being registered in their own right. One example of this is the so-called CM/1 (Care and Maintenance) application forms. The CM/1 forms were structured in such a way that first the ‘head of the family’ had to be indicated, followed by their relatives. The designation as head of the family also went along with much more detailed information on that person than on the rest of the family. This was usually ascribed to the eldest man in a household, however, often female refugees were on the move by themselves, or as heads of displaced families.
The case study here is that of a female-headed, displaced family which moved through different camps in Austria. It contributes to a gendered perspective on the historical understanding of post-war migration regimes. To safeguard the privacy of the people described here and of their descendants, their names have been anonymised. Sources documenting the family’s years in displacement are held by the Arolsen Archives – International Center on Nazi Persecution, which hosts the most extensive collection of records on the administration of post-World War II migration.
The case study tells the story of former forced labourer Natalia S. Her biography of displacement is fascinating especially due to its insights into the process of negotiating resettlement options for emigration as a single mother, as well as the information it gives on child upbringing in times of transit. The Arolsen Archives hold different documents on Natalia S., including a report of her interview with the IRO, conducted in spring 1950 in Kapfenberg, Austria. Under the headline on her ‘family situation’, she is described as an ‘unmarried mother [who] does not intend to marry the father of her child, as he did not take any interest in her’. Her interview furthermore records that she would like to emigrate to Australia, ‘but only together with her daughter’. In the interview report, however, it is stated that ‘the reasons why family group […] cannot be resettled at this time’ are listed as follows: ‘1. Unmarried mother, 2. Illiterate’.
The case of Natalia S. also provides insights into the IRO’s interferences in the process of child upbringing and the welfare measures implemented upon the single mother and her young child. In her files, it is stated that ‘the mother did not know how to care for the baby’. Natalia S.’s daughter was taken away from her and first transferred to a children’s home in Leoben, Austria. According to records in the Arolsen Archives, Natalia S. was suffering from mental illness. The archives also hold a document in which the DP camp manager accused her of receiving male visitors in the night. He proposed that Natalia S. should be encouraged to emigrate as soon as possible. According to the Child Welfare Officer, after the camp doctors and nurses had attempted in the first months to teach the single mother how to care for her daughter, they then tried to convince Natalia S. to give up her claim to the child. Natalia S.’s daughter received the status of ‘unaccompanied child’ and during her stay at the Displaced Persons Children’s Home in Bad Schallerbach, Austria, she was ‘legally given up to IRO Child Care for the purpose of resettlement in USA under the sponsorship of the US Committee of Care for European Children’. In autumn 1951 the name of Natalia S.’s daughter is mentioned on an IRO-emigration list for New York, while the mother herself probably remained in Europe.
Looking closer at female-headed households in post-war Europe can lead to new insights into the lives of displaced women, as this case study of a single mother has demonstrated. We can see that not only professional skills and experiences of persecution, but also their perceived behaviour in camp, their marital status, as well as the judgement of welfare officers, played important roles in how they were treated by officials making decisions about resettlement. A gendered analysis of historical records not only makes displaced women’s experiences more visible – it also highlights prejudice and hierarchies within the negotiation of the future in post-war Europe and beyond.
Franziska Maria Lamp, BA BA MA, is a historian and PhD researcher. Since 2022 she has been part of an FWF/DFG-funded project on ‘Norms, Regulation and Refugee Agency: Negotiating the Migration Regimes’ at the Department for Contemporary History of the University of Vienna. In her dissertation, she focuses on displaced women in refugee and displaced persons camps in Allied-occupied Austria. Her fields of research include Historical Migration Studies as well as Women’s and Gender History.