An archive of tragedy
by Kim Gordon Bates
Historical documents and personal effects
are meticulously catalogued to ensure the events of the Second
World War are not forgotten and its victims are compensated.
Located between a baroque palace and a vast forest, the town
of Arolsen, Germany is an unlikely location for a humanitarian
activity that began soon after the Second World War and still
benefits hundreds of thousands of people - 400,522 in 2001 alone.
It is perhaps the oldest, and certainly one of the largest,
ICRC delegations with a staff of over 430. But few within
the organization actually know where Arolsen is located and
even fewer about the organization's work there. Yet the International
Tracing Service (ITS) in Arolsen, Germany is one of the most
extraordinary operational archives one can hope to find.
The ITS deals with the human tragedy that was the Second
World War and its immediate aftermath. Under its roof, in
great sliding shelves marked with names such as Buchenwald,
Auschwitz and Dachau is the greatest collection of horror-related
papers anywhere, from "deathbooks" to "de-licing"
coupons, from deportation lists to family photos. The ITS
staff, now using advanced computer technology, strive to track
down the case history of former camp inmates and of all those
who were shipped to Nazi Germany as forced labour.
In Arolsen, some 17 million lives are described, often incompletely,
by 47 million scraps of paper; 47 million scraps of paper
rescued from 22 concentration camps and their thousands of
satellite structures, from displaced persons' camps, ghettos,
prisons and municipal archives, as well as from factories
and police files. A special section is devoted to children,
including those who as babies were wrenched away from their
"non-Aryan" parents and handed over to "true
Aryan parents". Arolsen is a place where beneath each
scrap of paper lies a human tragedy of incommensurate proportions.
Perhaps the ITS's most notorious role is to provide certificates
to concentration camp survivors. This is a crucial task not
only because such certificates enable the victim to obtain
compensation money, or access to pension funds, but also provide
stamps of legitimacy for those who survived and whose stories
are not always believed. Neither the ITS nor the ICRC pay
out compensation. Their responsibility is to deliver the vital
certificate that is recognized by the German government, or
its agencies, to allow for disbursement of funds.
A business that began even before the Second World War was
over: in 1943, in London, the Allies had already established
the legal framework for what would become the ITS. Today,
if the actual management of the archives is an ICRC responsibility,
archival policy is determined by a group of 11 nations (Great
Britain, France, USA, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy,
Greece, Israel, Poland and Germany).
Jews in a forced-labour brigade pose holding
shovels in the village of Piotrkow Kujawski, Poland, 1942.
A day's work
Working at Arolsen is a harrowing business. It is a job that
involves handling the last remains of millions of lives. Despite
the high-tech computers, the proximity each worker has with
the tragedy remains intact. Susanne Siebert, ITS's information
technology coordinator, knows and feels this intensely: "People
who work here work with their hearts."
High-tech and history have merged well at ITS. Firstly because
there is the need to work fast - a fast-track research now
only takes eight weeks compared to at least several months
or sometimes years before the introduction of computers. Then
there is the realization that each scrap of paper has to be
saved in a huge database for future reference. Historical
conservation has of late become another of the ITS's key tasks.
The need to save all this paper and memory with an exact
understanding of what happened half a century ago remains
essential. Consider that attempts were, and are, still made
by Holocaust deniers. They claim that the ITS can only show
documentary evidence for just over 380,000 deaths in concentration
camps and use the records as proof for their arguments.
But the Holocaust deniers forget something. There were two
types of camps. There were the concentration camps where the
inmates were given short leases of life by the Nazis, to work
as slaves, and were registered. Their lives were terrifying
and often brief, but they fared better than the millions of
others sent straight to their deaths in the extermination
camps of the east: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor
These millions were never granted the slightest act of paper
recognition. Their rescue from oblivion lies essentially in
the telling of those who know, of people such as Udo Jost,
a former post-war Luftwaffe member, who came to the ITS in
1984 to fill a "temporary job" and who then thought
"that I already knew everything on the Holocaust but
it was only in the ITS that I truly realized the scale of
the tragedy". Since then, Udo Jost is but one of the
ITS staffers who has devoted his life so that "people
never forget" and spends many hours guiding schoolchildren
through the ITS's paper house of horror.
A race against time
Fifty-seven years after the end of the war in Europe, the
number of survivors is decreasing by the year and recognition
if not compensation is owed to them. This is particularly
true of those who were compelled into forced labour.
Since the end of the cold war, the number of requests arriving
from the former Soviet-controlled countries has increased
drastically - the backlog of unanswered queries stands at
just over 400,000. Many former victims are encountering insurmountable
difficulties in getting their due, according to Charles-Claude
Biedermann, director of the ITS at Arolsen: "Out in the
countryside of Ukraine and Belarus there are thousands of
people who cannot even afford a stamp to write to us, who
cannot be reached." So far, approximately only one-third
of the estimated 1.5 million victims of Nazi forced-labour
programmes have been found and identified. Biedermann adds:
"With more money we can do more; we need money for high
performance electronic equipment and staff but we also need
access to those documents still kept from us. Not every German
manufacturer has been as cooperative as Siemens, Bayer or
In an attempt to reach the greatest number of people in
the shortest time possible, the ITS has to rely on the efforts
of a number of partners, either those established by the German
Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation or else
through a number of National Societies such as the Polish,
Ukrainian and Belarus Red Cross.
Recruiting additional help, however, is nothing new to the
ITS. The service, created in Frankfurt, moved to Arolsen in
1946 when the first truckload of documents seized by the Allies
- municipal records of forced-labour workers - were brought
into the courtyard of what had been the barracks of the SS
regiment Germania. There, some 1,200 typists, nearly all foreigners
and themselves displaced persons, began sifting through the
documents, translating, classifying. Since that day, the ITS
has responded to some 9.6 million queries.
Equally important is the fact that nearly 3 million individual
files remain existent and may be reactivated any day should
new documentary evidence arrive to provide the necessary positive
strike. As happened one day last April, when a Polish woman
received confirmation of the fate that had befallen her husband
deported some 50 years earlier. Her husband's wedding ring
was returned to her after being stored in the ITS archive
along with thousands of others. "But even this 'joy'
could soon come to a premature end," says Biedermann.
"The ITS's funding is hesitant and, because of money,
the service's humanitarian work is at present in jeopardy."
Kim Gordon Bates
Kim Gordon Bates is ICRC senior editor.
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