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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Historical documents and personal effects are meticulously catalogued to ensure the events of the Second World War are not forgotten and its victims are compensated.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 and Belzec.

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 Zeiss..."

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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