Reorganizing a Vast Archive: Holocaust Tracing Service Still Reuniting Families

By in Bad Arolsen, Germany

The International Tracing Service, set up after World War II to help survivors of Nazi Germany find their families, is being turned into a historical archive that will help convey the scale and the suffering of the Holocaust to coming generations. Its vast vault of files is still helping to reunite survivors -- and has just given Wilhelm Thiem his identity back.

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Wilhelm Thiem was two years old when an SS man pulled him from his mother's arms. It was in 1942, and she was sent from their home in Lodz, in occupied Poland, to become a forced laborer in Germany. He never saw her again.

Wilhelm spent an unhappy childhood with a reluctant foster mother who brought him to Germany in 1944 and gave him her surname. Since then, Wilhelm has agonized about what became of his mother, who his father was and whether he had any real relatives left. He has spent a lifetime wondering why all this had to happen -- and who he really is.

"I have this abiding memory of being held in the arms of a strange woman and being carried through a stone brick arch," Thiem, 72, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I've always felt alone, like an outsider. People always demanded to know who I am and where I came from and I just didn't know. It was like I never really had a face. I grew up with a sense that I don't belong in this world. It has dogged me all my life."

But Thiem's life may be about to change. Last month, he received a letter from an organization called the International Tracing Service (ITS) in the town of Bad Arolsen, just 40 kilometers from his home in the central German town of Brilon.

"They told me I have an aunt in Lodz who's still alive and who knew me," Thiem said. "They also sent me my birth certificate and that of my mother. Now I know for sure for the first time when my birthday is. It has overwhelmed me emotionally. My aunt should be able to answer a lot of questions. I feel a new certainty growing me," said Thiem.

Or rather Zbiegniew Kazmierzak, which is his real name.

Families Still Reunited Every Year

The striking aspect about Thiem's case is that it's not that unusual. Even after all these years, the ITS still helps to reunite 30 to 50 families per year. It gets about 1,000 requests per month from people trying to find out what happened to their ancestors in the war. Actual tracing requests involving survivors still account for around 3 percent of enquiries.

The ITS is the world's biggest archive of original documents relating to the Holocaust and the millions of so-called Displaced Persons who were dragged away from their families in World War II to be put in concentration camps or conscripted into forced labor to keep the Nazi war machine going.

In many cases, those looking for family members were children taken away from parents being sent to prison or condemned to forced labor, as happened to Thiem. They feel a need at the end of their lives to find out what happened to their parents and to establish their true identities.

Another typical request comes from families in Russia, the Baltic States, Ukraine or Belarus that were torn apart when relatives who survived the Holocaust were stranded in western Europe at the end of the war. Many of them then opted to emigrate to America or Australia rather than be repatriated to Stalin's Soviet Union, where they would have faced an uncertain future and possible imprisonment for alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany. In the 1990s, the ITS was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of requests from former forced laborers seeking official confirmation of their status so that they could claim compensation under a new scheme offered by the German government.

The Giant Task of Repatriation

After the war ended in 1945, the Allies faced the monumental task of repatriating an estimated 10 million former forced laborers and concentration camp survivors, and enlisted the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had expertise in tracing via its global network, to help find their families.

A Tracing Bureau had already been set up with the British Red Cross in London in 1943. In 1946, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration took charge of caring for non-German refugees. The sedate little town of Bad Arolsen, home to an SS officer training school, was picked as the base for the ITS because of its central location between the four zones of occupation and because it had come through the war with its infrastructure virtually unscathed, including a line of SS officers' villas along its main street.

Any file that could be found with a name on it -- concentration camp registers, lists of forced laborers, Gestapo secret police records, birth certificates -- was carted to Bad Arolsen to create a database that now contains some 30 million documents on 17.5 million people. It has processed some 12 million requests since its inception.

'Every Day People Were Incinerated'

The papers include a carbon copy of Schindler's List typed by Mieczyslaw Pemper, a Holocaust survivor who had helped compile the famous register of Jewish workers employed by Oskar Schindler, the ethnic German industrialist who saved over 1,100 Jews from being killed by employing them in his companies.

They also include forms filled out by displaced persons after the war in which they were asked to describe their experiences. One wrote: "Every day people were incinerated."

The Red Cross was formally put in charge of the ITS in 1955 because the Allies still didn't trust the young West German republic to control an archive brimming with evidence of the nation's guilt. The directors of the ITS have all been Swiss nationals. At the end of this year, the Red Cross will withdraw from the management, reflecting the gradual transition of the archive from a tracing service to a priceless, untapped source of material for historical research into the Nazi era, the Holocaust, and the immediate aftermath of the war

As the number of survivors dwindles, databases like the ITS will become even more important because of the silent stories they will tell. Millions of personal fates are recorded in those yellowed, brittle documents, punched with cold bureaucratic typescript or scratched in shaky hand-writing by prisoners scared for their lives and stunned by their ordeal.

"I have no great fear that we will forget the Holocaust, you can't forget that, but there is a risk of the banalization of commemoration," Jean-Luc Blondel, the outgoing director of the ITS, told SPIEGEL ONLINE in his office in Bad Arolsen. "I have heard many speeches on the memorial days like January 27 and November 9, they all sound very proper, but I miss the passion and the conviction. One talks about it a lot, but one doesn't think about it. That is why education is such an important part of our work now. We don't confront young people with images of piles of corpses. Our approach is to say, 'what ended in Auschwitz started in your street.'"

Blondel, a Red Cross executive, will be succeeded by Professor Rebecca Boehling, an American expert on the Holocaust and World War II at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The Red Cross will continue to help the ITS with tracing requests, and Germany's national archive will provide advice on restructuring the database.

The ITS only opened its archive to researchers in 2007 after years of pressure from historians as well as Holocaust survivors in the US and Israel angered at the long time it was taking to obtain information.

Painstaking Reorganization

The archive had increasingly been seen as hamstrung by its statute, overseen by an international commission of 11 countries, that placed the emphasis on the privacy of the data and restricted access to information to its own staff and to prosecutors in Nazi trials.

Most of the documents have been digitized and the staff of just under 300 is busy deacidifying the decaying paper to stabilize it. Whole files are put in machines resembling large tumble driers that remove the acid corroding the documents. Laminated files are put through a chemical treatment that separates print that has stuck to the plastic and reattaches it to the paper.

It will take years to sort and cross-reference all the information in the database. The archive was devised from the outset to be searchable only by names, because that was its initial task -- to find people. But researchers want to be able to apply different search criteria such as locations or themes. What happened to the Sinti and Roma in Galicia? How were the death marches organized, when hundreds of thousands of prisoners were forced to walk to Germany from concentration camps in the occupied east as the Red Army closed in on the Reich?

At present, getting the information one wants from the ITS still requires a lot of sifting.

Bureaucratic Thoroughness

Thankfully, German bureaucrats often recorded the ordeals of the victims with chilling thoroughness. "Buchenwald concentration camp diligently updated its registers until April 10, 1945. It was liberated on April 11," said Kathrin Flor, the spokeswoman for ITS. "They would fill out a form on a prisoner's personal belongings even if he had just come on a death march from Auschwitz and only had the rags he was wearing."

There were limits to the record-keeping, however. "With death camps like Sobibor or the extermination part of Auschwitz, the last trace of a life was the transport to the camp. There was no registration after that," said Flor. "And you won't find the word 'gassed.' In the death books of Auschwitz you'll find natural causes of death like pneumonia or heart failure. They were at pains to hide the truth then."

There is also no written record of the approximately one million people shot dead by German troops and SS death squads in mass executions following the invasion of the Soviet Union, said Flor. The German documents are infused with the racism of the Nazi era. Prisoners are categorized with humiliating descriptions such as "protruding ears" or "crooked teeth." The lists compiled by the Allies, by contrast, served to help the refugees and give them back their identity. Obvious though that difference may seem, it is part of Bad Arolsen's legacy. The archive in itself is a piece of history.

Global Web of Memory

Reorganizing the database is one of the tasks of Susanne Urban, the ITS head of research, who joined the archive in 2009 after working in Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the Holocaust. She says she expects the archive to reveal a plethora of "mosaic stones" to complete the picture of the genocide rather than alter it.

"Here you keep getting confronted with the global aspect of the Holocaust and survival, you see how it started in Germany, spread across Europe and with the documents about the survivors we see how a web of memory has spread across the whole world. Here you get an overview over everything. What makes it so harrowing is that you don't just get one aspect, you get them all. You sense this monolith that was built of pain and sorrow."

The work may be fascinating, but it can also be exhausting and saddening. Urban has only two research assistants on temporary contracts, which she says isn't enough.

'Tiny Rays of Light'

"You can't work here without empathy but you can't let it overwhelm you. You read some stories for example in files about children and then you go home and you have to go for a run through the fields for a couple of hours. But what I personally find very heartening is that in the midst of all this horror you find tiny rays of light, for example files of people who helped someone else or people recalling how they were hidden as children."

In her work in schools and universities, she uses information from the archive to focus on the fates of individuals such as children who lost their identity by being separated from their parents and taken far away. That, she says, is an effective way to get people to think about the Holocaust and to empathize with the victims.

"After seeing the bureaucratic diligence in these files, we get unprompted responses from many young people like 'Wow, are we lucky we live in freedom.' That is of course a wonderful side effect. Learning not just about history, but from it," says Urban.

She recalls one particularly moving instance in her research on death marches this year. She stumbled on an exhumation report dated October 13, 1949 from a military cemetery in Neunburg, Bavaria stating that a previously unkown corpse had been identified as one Jozef Walkowski.

Backbreaking Work

The Polish prisoner was identified by his prisoner number and by two letters in his pocket, one from his wife Zofia and one addressed to her but never sent. Urban had a name and searched the archive. She found out that he had two children, that he had lived in Poznan and that he had been drafted into a forced labour camp in September 1943 to do backbreaking work building a highway.

She learned that he had been taken to Auschwitz in November 1943 before being deported to Buchenwald in January 1944, where he was registered as suffering from "general physical weakness." He was shot dead in April 1944 during a forced march.

His daughter is still alive. "We have contacted her and were able to tell her where her father is buried," said Urban. "The nice thing is she knows where he lies now and she knows that her parents loved each other. And now she can visit the cemetery and place some flowers on her father's grave."

It's the kind of certainty Wilhelm Thiem, who was taken from his mother when he was a toddler, has craved for all his life. He now plans to travel to Poland to meet his aunt. "She must be very old now, I want to speak to her before she dies," he says.

He knows his mother returned to Poland after the war, married a Frenchman and is then believed to have emigrated to France. "Just imagine, I might have a brother or a sister there! I'd be able to die in peace."

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