Hidden Treasures at the National Archives: Uncovering Red Cross History

Story by Kathleen Salanik, National Headquarters, Director of Restoring Family Links

I have the privilege of working with an incredible team of staff and volunteers at American Red Cross national headquarters who every day in their work strive to find answers for separated families.

For a team outing, we went on a tour of the National Archives in Washington DC. It was a way for us all to take a break and do an activity in which we all had a common interest- seeking new information and learning from history.

We saw famous historical documents including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We also toured a special exhibit “Making Their Mark - Stories Through Signatures” which had various documents and memorabilia signed by notable individuals.  The most striking document we viewed, however, relates directly to the work done each day by the Red Cross.

It is a letter from the Secretary of War during WWII, Henry Stimson, to the then US Ambassador to Great Britain, John Winant. The letter, I am sure, brought both sorrow and relief to the Ambassador. Its contents read that the International Red Cross had provided confirmation that the Ambassador’s son was captured by the German Army and was being held in a prison camp. I can only imagine that it was sorrowful for the Ambassador to know his son had been captured, but to know that he was no longer missing, that he was alive and that the Red Cross has visited him, must have at least provided some reassurance, and most importantly, hope.

To see the work done by the Red Cross in conflict zones, the work that registers prisoners, relays news of their detention to family members and facilitates family communication, displayed in a special exhibit of the National Archives was profoundly rewarding to me and to my colleagues. Information accompanying the letter in the National Archives indicated that the Ambassador’s son was eventually released and returned home.  A joyful ending to a nerve-wrecking situation for the family.

While not all stories of family separation end so well, the work that I do with the Red Cross on behalf of families who are in such desperate situations is fulfilling. Even when the Red Cross isn’t able to find answers and even when the answers that are found are heartbreaking, the families we support are thankful. They are grateful that a Red Cross worker listened to their story and took action to try to help.

It is these families, like the Ambassador’s, that Red Cross caseworkers serve every day. It is tremendously rewarding work and, for me, to see it on display at the National Archives was amazing. While the program has changed over time and continues to grow, the mission of bringing peace of mind by reconnecting families remains engrained in everything we do.