A reader wrote to me about his attempts to reconstruct his family’s flight from Occupied Europe. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s somewhat like looking for a needle that may or may not be in a haystack. Something the reader said made me think that it might be useful to return to the subject of archives, specifically what is, and is not, in archives.

The reader presumed that he should be able to find records of border crossings during the war. I, on the other hand, would be very surprised to find any such thing. I’ll tell you why in two scenarios, starting with the least likely.

Suppose that the family in question left Occupied Europe legally. That would have required a formidable number of exit and entrance visas, travel passes etc etc. At the time, in 1942, the journey would have generated a fair amount of paperwork in a fair number of bureaucratic offices across western Europe. The family would have taken this sheaf of documents and boarded a train. At every border, customs agents and border guards on both sides would have inspected the documents, possibly made telephone calls to their superiors to verify the documents, stamped them, and waved the bearers onward. None of those officials would have made a record of the family’s passing unless they arrested the family. Remember that this happened long before computers when every record had to be written or typed by hand. No one had the time to write down the particulars of entire trainloads of passengers.

If they did arrest the family, the police may have filled out a report or entered the family’s names on a log. The report may or may not have survived the war. The family, however, made it all the way Portugal, so we’ll presume that they were not arrested or at least not long enough to make an impression on the prison system’s records.

So, if the family went through all the borders without troubles, there would be no record of them at the borders. But there would have been papers regarding their applications for the various visas and permits. Could you find those applications? Probably not because those are the kind of bureaucratic ephemera that archives do not keep.

Every archive has a mission. The archives of a church guard the documents of that church. The archives of a nation preserve the most important papers of the government running that nation with, possibly, a few more personal documents along the lines of the private papers of a statesman if they’ve been donated by the statesman or his family. No archive is big enough to keep every form ever filed by every bureaucratic office of the government. The bureaucracies themselves often don’t keep all the forms, clearing them out on an approved schedule to make room for new files. Routine applications for entrance and exit visas just aren’t important enough to have survived the continual storage crisis of bureaucracies and archives.

Having said that, I do have to add that when it comes to the Second World War, you will occasionally find unexpected exceptions to that rule. A surprising number of far-sighted individuals made a point of collecting documents in Europe as the war ended in 1944 and 1945. Some of them literally snatched papers from the flames of bonfires that the Gestapo and their ilk made before retreating back into the Third Reich. So the logbook of a border post in the Pyrenees for 1942 survives in the French Archives nationales. That sort of thing is usually too trivial to make it into a national archive, but someone found it and kept it in 1944. They may have thought that it might prove useful in a war crimes trial or they may have been gathering up information for future histories of the war (in which case I extend my thanks).

By the same token, when it comes to the Second World War, entire collections of government documents that should be in the archives are not there. A lot of them burned, either deliberately or as the result of bombing raids or other acts of war. Some have been so thoroughly sequestered by the machinations of powerful governments and people who have something to hide that they may never come to light. Fortunately for all of use, we know this because unknown archives have recently been opened.

We’ll discuss the second and much more likely scenario of the family’s clandestine journey through Occupied Europe in the next post.