The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is an organization associated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) that works to encourage peace and social justice matters around the world.
The AFSC was founded in 1917 in response to the major humanitarian crises related to World War I. Throughout the 1920s the AFSC sought to relieve suffering by operating child feeding programs across Europe, most notably in Germany. Quaker International centers, run jointly by American and British Friends, were established in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Moscow, and elsewhere to continue relief efforts after the start of the Great Depression in 1929. In the 1930s, these Centers focused on relief efforts, but after the Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938 the AFSC established a Refugee Division (also referred to as the Refugee Section) tasked with assisting individuals and families in need. Quaker relief efforts continued, but the AFSC also began helping people flee Nazi Europe, communicate with loved ones, and adjust to life in the United States.
Since the mid-1930s, the AFSC had been supporting the work of Hertha Kraus. Kraus was a refugee professor at Bryn Mawr College, who found teaching positions and provided assistance to other refugees, some she knew personally and others who had been referred to her. When the Refugee Division formally began work in February 1939, they took over the 780 case files from Kraus's office, and Kraus became an important consultant in their work.
Within a year, the Division opened more than 3,000 new cases and met with thousands of people seeking help in the Vienna and Berlin Quaker offices. The Division had a mostly female staff of about 25 workers in the AFSC's main Philadelphia office, plus a few workers in a New York office that shared a building with several other refugee aid groups.
Many relief organizations specialized in certain types of refugees—Jewish groups helped Jews, Catholic groups helped Catholics—but the AFSC's Refugee Division assisted those who were not already being helped. In practice, the AFSC primarily worked with “non-Aryan Christians” (those considered “racially Jewish” by the Nuremberg Laws but who did not consider themselves Jewish by religion) and those in mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The Quakers aided people seeking affidavits to come to the United States—a critical step in the immigration process—by locating American citizens willing to sponsor them. In many cases, the refugee was unknown to the person writing the affidavit. The Quakers coordinated with numerous other agencies such as the National Refugee Service, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) to ensure that as many refugees could be helped as possible.
In addition to assisting those still in Europe, the Quakers helped newly arrived refugees adjust to life in the United States. The AFSC established a series of workshops and hostels to help refugees learn English and prepare for their new lives, including Sky Island Hostel in Nyack, New York; the Haverford Cooperative Workshop in Haverford, Pennsylvania; and the Quaker Hill Hostel in Richmond, Indiana. The largest and longest-running hostel was Scattergood, in West Branch, Iowa, where more than 185 refugees lived between 1940 and 1943. Working with the Joint, Hertha Kraus traveled to Havana, Cuba, in 1939 to found the Finca Paso Seco hostel, where refugees could learn agricultural trades.
The Quakers also combated anti-refugee sentiment. The AFSC joined with the American Jewish Committee to publish a booklet, "Refugee Facts: A Study of the German Refugee in America," intended to show that refugees were neither swarming the United States, nor would they worsen unemployment in a country still deep in the Depression. More than 250,000 copies of the booklet were distributed across the country. The AFSC also advocated on behalf of Japanese and Japanese-Americans interned in the United States after the outbreak of war.
British involvement with the Quaker International centers in Nazi territory ended when England declared war on Germany in September 1939. Since the United States remained neutral from September 1939 to December 1941, American Quakers were able to continue working in Berlin and Vienna until 1941. When Americans were finally forced to flee Nazi territory, the centers were turned over to German Quakers who continued working with Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution throughout the war, despite threats of arrest and internment.
The most important wartime Quaker relief operations in Europe were in southern France, in the unoccupied area controlled by the collaborationist Vichy government. Since 1939, a multinational group of Quakers had operated in Marseille, Toulouse, and other French cities, aiding Spanish Republicans and their families escaping over the Pyrenees after the Spanish Civil War. When thousands of Jewish refugees fled into southern France after the German invasion and occupation of the north in summer 1940, these Quaker offices expanded to assist them. They established soup kitchens in French concentration camps like Les Milles and Gurs, operated homes hiding Jewish children, and helped smuggle children out of camps to safety.
In addition to assisting refugees in France with affidavits and other immigration issues, the AFSC's Refugee Division helped thousands of people in the United States transfer small amounts of money to loved ones in French concentration camps. The AFSC also played a key role in helping hundreds of children, including Jewish refugees and the children of Spanish Republicans, come to the United States under the care of the US Committee for the Care of European Children in 1941–42. The AFSC opened refugee assistance offices in Lisbon, which had become one of the last available destinations for Jews fleeing Europe, and in North Africa, where they helped negotiate the release of hundreds of people held in internment camps.
By the time the Refugee Division ceased operations in the early 1950s, AFSC staff had opened more than 22,000 case files for individuals and families, responding with immigration and settlement assistance, financial help, or just a sympathetic ear. For their relief efforts, their work with refugees, and for their overall promotion of peace, the American Friends Service Committee and their British counterparts, the Friends Service Council, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.