Today’s post comes from Rebecca Brenner, an intern in the History Office at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
In 1938 the von Trapp family singers were in danger.
Baron von Trapp, a heroic Austrian sea captain in World War I, declined a commission to serve in the naval forces of the Third Reich.
His eldest son, Rupert, likewise declined a request to serve as a doctor for the Nazis.
Finally, according to daughter Agathe von Trapp’s memoir, the singing family “refused in unison” an invitation to sing on the Munich radio in honor of Hitler’s birthday.
In 2005, Prologue magazine published an illuminating account of “The Real Story of the von Trapp Family,” which relied on immigration and citizenship records held in the National Archives at Boston.
Documents at the National Archives at College Park—in Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins’s immigration correspondence—build upon this story. These documents suggest that Perkins was instrumental in the immigration case of the von Trapp Family Singers.
In 1933, less than two months after the Nazis seized power in Germany, Perkins became Secretary of Labor. As Secretary, she oversaw the Immigration and Naturalization Service throughout the 1930s. Perkins’s immigration correspondence includes a series of letters from American citizens to Perkins concerning refugees.
The von Trapps were one case among hundreds in Perkins’s correspondence.
The family left Austria for Italy in the summer of 1938. They then entered the United States on temporary visitors’ visas. After a brief stay in the United States, the von Trapps traveled to Scandinavia for a singing tour.
In the fall of 1939, the family returned to the U.S. for another singing tour. This time, Ellis Island officials detained the family because Maria von Trapp cried, “Oh, I am so glad to be here—I never want to leave again!”
The Department of State, which shared some jurisdiction over immigration with the Department of Labor, had asserted that the repeated extension of visitors’ visas conflicted with American immigration law.
In her memoir, Agathe mentioned that the other detainees cheered when the family was released from detainment after three days because this was rare on Ellis Island. She attributed their release to a kind friend in Pennsylvania they had met during their first singing tour. That friend was likely Gertrude Ely, also a friend of Perkins.
Ely wrote to Perkins on behalf of the family on March 12, 1940, saying, “I am sending this note with the sheaf of forms made out by Baron von Trapp for his singing family, making the request that their visitors’ visas be extended six months.”
Three days later, Perkins requested safe passage for the von Trapps in a memorandum to the Commissioner of Immigration.
On March 19, 1940, Ely replied that the Baron hoped to thank Perkins for her successful efforts.
The family became citizens nearly a decade later.
Baron von Trapp’s calling card is in Perkins’s correspondence file to this day at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.