During World War II, Elsie Thomas Culver (1898-1988), a graduate of the Pacific School of Religion and ordained a Congregational minister (1943), worked for the Church Committee on Overseas Relief and Reconstruction (which later became Church World Service under the National Council of Churches).
As a publicist, she was in charge of creating material for fund raising campaigns. When the war ended in May 1945, Elsie, at the age of 47, packed up her camera and traveled throughout Europe that September through December.
Through Holland, France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, she visited hospitals, schools, relief centers, anywhere where reconstruction work was going on, taking hundreds of photographs. Each photograph is numbered, and all have explanatory captions on the back.
|Photograph of a child among the Displaced
Persons traveling from France to her home in
Czechoslovakia after the war.
Beginning a log of her travels, she writes that one returns from such a trip,
"with a deep sense of gratitude for the privilege of having shared a great experience. It is a gratitude that must be very profound and humble. I went avowedly to meet and talk with the common people, to hear their stories, and to let them know, so far as one person could, that the Christian people of America do care what has been happening to them, and want to share their burdens as far as possible by gifts of money and material goods. "
"Among the heartrending sights and trying situations, there was also a full quota of funny experiences, many stemming from the fact that I apparently look German. A Russian soldier in Prague was sure I ought to be interned, thought he was very friendly after I persuaded him I was American. And in Germany the American army officers practically threw me off the crowded troop trains bodily several times before I could make them look at my travel papers. But such incidents, and the physical discomforts of sitting up all night on the wooden benches of unheated, windowless trains while subsisting on hunks of sour and toucg black bread, or being caught in the middle of an angry demonstration of the displaced people milling about one of the depots of central Europe, were nothing as compared to the joy of knowing how much it meant for many, to have an American woman, traveling pretty much ‘on her own’ and in civilian attire, drop in on them – just like that – for a friendly call, or start up a casual conversation in the train or at the restaurant. I was glad to be making that contact on behalf of the American church people."
Elsie has provided history with unparalleled resources about personal human experiences for a time and place associated with overwhelming military power and destruction.
A native of California, she retired in Berkeley, working tirelessly for the peace movement and women’s issues. She authored Women in the World of Religion in 1967 which she dedicated: "To the Men – in the hope that, as men and women together [we] rediscover our God-given oneness."
Written by Lucinda Glenn Rand, Archivist, October 17, 2001.
For more information, view the online exhibit Elsie Thomas Culver: A Journey Through Post-World War II Europe, see the Finding Aid or visit the archives.