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News > Jan Papanek and the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees

Jan Papanek and the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees

Martin Nekola 24 May, 2018

Thousands of Czech and Slovak democrats left Czechoslovakia after the Communist seizure of power in February 1948. Their first steps into the “free world” brought these people to displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. These facilities were under the control of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) or of local administrations. Their involuntary temporary residents had to wait in these camps for months, even years, applying for visas and work permits, lacking supplies, medicine and clothes. The need for help was enormous. These dire conditions led to the founding of the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees (AFCR) on May 3, 1948 which was probably the most important and the most effective humanitarian organization assisting suffering émigrés from Czechoslovakia. 


Displaced persons camp.


Family of Czechoslovak refugees after 1948.


Almost 9,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled from behind the Iron Curtain through the end of 1948 and then found themselves in a strange vacuum, into a Western Europe slowly recovering from the devastation of World War Two, and lacking any international legal protection or guarantees. Diplomat Jan Papanek (1896-1991), the Czechoslovak Ambassador to the United Nations, whom the new communist government unsuccessfully tried to force to resign, lobbied U. S. officials and was able to arrange for the acceptance of 2,000 Czechoslovak refugees to the USA, beyond the existing strict immigration quotas. He also protested against the Prague coup in the UN Security Council, accusing the Soviet Union of interference in the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia, thus endangering world peace and security. The proposal for an independent investigation into events in Czechoslovakia was, to no one’s surprise, vetoed by the Soviets and the matter remained on the agenda unresolved. Aid to the refugees was another big task undertaken by this honest man, democrat and friend of his homeland where he had not lived for more than two decades, because of his studies in Paris, The Hague, and then his diplomatic assignments to Geneva, Budapest, Pittsburgh and New York. 


Jan Papanek (1896-1991)



Papanek with former First Lady and a strong supporter of AFCR Eleanor Roosevelt.


Diplomat Papanek protesting against the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia at the UN.


The International Red Cross, CARE, YMCA, International Rescue and Relief Committee, National Catholic Welfare Conferenceand other organizations were involved in caring for the refugees from many European nations after the war but their resources remained insufficient. In early May 1948, Papanek took the initiative. He called a meeting of leading compatriots in the United States, inviting their participation and cooperation in this non-political humanitarian effort. Cooperation was promised, but Papanekhad to leave for Paris to attend the UN General Assembly session during which the Soviets tried to oust him from the Administrative and Budgetary Committee and the Committee on Contributions to which he had been elected as an expert. The numbers of Czech and Slovak escapees had taken on alarming proportions and so, before leaving Europe, he visited a number of camps in Germany to learn about their conditions, and the problems and needs of the refugees. When Papanek returned to New York in December, he found that nothing had been done in the way of organizing the AFCR nor had any funds been collected. It was necessary to organize concerned loyal friends to formally set up the organization. He had to finance the small office himself. 


Jan Papanek and Czechoslovak foreign minister Jan Masaryk at the United Nations in 1947.


Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Governors Herbert H. Lehmanand Frank J. Lausche, Judge Otto Kerner, journalists Marcia Davenport, Dorothy Thompson, Drew Pearson, historian and President of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace James T. Shotwell and many others sponsored the AFCR and gave it significant support from the start. The Fund began to work in Europe under the umbrella of other voluntary organizations. When it proved its effectiveness, it was recognized as an established and independent organization. Thereupon, direct cooperation followed with governments, intergovernmental organizations, and national and international voluntary organizations active in the refugee field. The headquarters in New York City functioned with a skeleton staff, and offices were established in Germany, Austria, Norway, England, France and, shortly thereafter, in Canada. With limited funds available for paid staff, dedicated volunteers carried on the work. The Council of Free Czechoslovakia, established in February 1949, and The Czechoslovak National Council of America were the most important contributors from the beginning. 


AFCR Board meeting: (from the left) Peter Kordulak, Louis Hyde, Betka Papanek, Jan Papanek, Vojtech Jerabek, Jan Pokorny, Martha Cogan, Andrew Valuchek.


The AFCR New York office had two secretaries, Dr. Ivan Taborsky and Vojtech Jerabek, both working with dedication and devotedly for many years. There were scores of volunteers in New York and all over the United States, especially in Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, Boston and New Jersey -- without whose help the AFCR would not have been able to accomplish its massive goals. And it was significant! AFCR gradually became one of the leading agencies helping refugees. During the four decades of the Cold War, its services were given to almost 80,000 men,women, and children, who were counseled, helped materially and resettled to Canada, Australia, Latin America, the USA and elsewhere. It should be stated that the AFCR also assisted refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.


Supplies provided to the refugees by AFCR.


The remarkable history of the AFCR and its humanitarian aid of several million dollars has not been forgotten, and the Czech community of New York City was always proud to be part of it. Jan Papanek remained active in the humanitarian field well into his older years and fortunately, he lived to see the fall of the Iron Curtain and the re-opening of the satellite nations’ borders. On October 28, 1991, he was honored by Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel with the Thomas G. Masaryk Order, First Class. The order was created after the fall of Communism to reward distinguished service to democracy. Due to health issues, Papanek was not able to be present at the ceremony, but he was delighted and sent compliments from his home in Scarsdale, NY. He passed away only one month later. 


Unsurprisingly, the AFCR's main agenda changed in post-soviet times. The Fund was renamed the American Fund for Czechoslovak Relief in 1990 and later to the American Fund for Czech and Slovak Leadership Studies, providing grants for talented students and scholars from Czechia and Slovakia to this day. 


Historians and researchers interested in the AFCR should be aware of the Jan Papanek Papers deposited at the New York Public Library and several boxes with the archived documentation of the Fund, available at the Bohemian National Hall.  


Images: Archive of the author, BNH Archive, Czech National Archive Prague


Dr. Martin Nekola, Ph.D. received his doctorate in political science at the Charles University in Prague. His research is focused on non-democratic regimes, the era of Communism, and the East-European anti-communist exiles in the United States during the Cold War. He is the author of numerous articles and has published nine books, the most recent of which are Petr Zenkl: Politik a člověk (Petr Zenkl: Politician and Man), 2014, Krvavé století (Bloody Century), 2015, and České Chicago (Czech Chicago), 2017.

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