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Dr. Henning Borggräfe studied History and Politics. He is Head of the Research and Education Department at the Arolsen Archives. Historian Isabel Panek is a Research Associate at the Research and Education Department of the Arolsen Archives. Together with Henning Borggräfe and Christian Höschler, she is also joint curator of the permanent exhibition "A Paper Monument: The History of the Arolsen Archives."

By Henning Borggräfe and Isabel Panek

“I would like to know more about my family background and my father’s fate” or “we are researching the fates of forced laborers in our region”: these are typical of the inquiries which reach the Arolsen Archives (known as the International Tracing Service, ITS, up until May 2019) almost every day. Located in the small town of Bad Arolsen in North Hesse, Germany, the institution was established as a tracing service for the victims of Nazi persecution over 70 years ago. It is now an information center and an archive and is home to one of the world’s largest collections on the history of Nazi crimes and their aftermath. The history of the institution’s origins and the way it has evolved over the years are outlined below.

Extensive tracing activities after liberation from National Socialism

During their conquest of Germany and of the territories that had been occupied by Germany, the Allies came across approximately ten million so-called Displaced Persons (DPs). These included people who had been liberated from concentration camps, Holocaust survivors and survivors of the genocide of the Sinti and Roma, former forced laborers, and other people who found themselves outside of their native countries at the end of the war. Tens of thousands of them were children. The first concern of the Allies was to provide the DPs with essential care, and they were keen to return them to their native countries as quickly as possible. Most DPs were searching for information about the fate of missing friends and relatives at the time, as were millions of other people all over the world. Various agencies took up the search for victims and survivors of Nazi persecution during this early period and an extensive network of tracing bureaus was established. This network was supported by survivors who organized assistance themselves after liberation as well as by Jewish relief organizations and various national Red Cross Societies.

In the late summer of 1945, the Allies set up a Central Tracing Bureau (CTB) under the direction of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to coordinate the search for missing victims of persecution and for other missing persons from the member states of the United Nations. This bureau, which was initially located in Frankfurt-Höchst before it moved to Arolsen in January 1946, served as a central hub for tracing activities up until 1947. It went about its work by circulating inquiries and documents between tracing bureaus in the three Western zones of occupation and a number of national tracing bureaus and by building up a Central Name Index (CNI). Between 1948 and 1951, tracing activities were centralized in Arolsen under the direction of the International Refugee Organization (IRO), which was responsible for looking after the remaining DPs, and the zonal bureaus were closed down. As of 1 January 1948, the CTB became the International Tracing Service.

The importance of documents

Written testimony of persecution was essential, not only for tracing missing persons and providing information about their fate, but also for documenting atrocities, for criminal prosecutions, and for possible compensation claims. The same held true for knowledge about the National Socialist machinery of terror, the various sites of imprisonment, and the mass crimes which had been committed. During the last months of the war, survivors’ initiatives had already begun to save documents which had been created by the perpetrators. The Allied liberators took possession of the concentration camp documents which the SS had not succeeded in destroying. On the orders of the Allies, authorities, firms, and insurance companies released millions of documents on foreign forced laborers from 1946 on. In the late 1940's, ITS staff searched for traces along the routes of the death marches as well as combing through registry offices and orphanages in search of clues as to the whereabouts of foreign children who had gone missing or been abducted. And finally, the ITS collected together millions of additional documents on the registration, care and emigration of the DPs and brought them to Arolsen. These documents form the core of the ITS collection, which continued to grow over the following decades as a result of the acquisition of other collections, some of which contained original documents, while others contained copies. Today, the holdings of the Arolsen Archives comprise over 30 million documents. A Central Name Index, consisting of over 50 million index cards on the fates of over 17 million people, is one of the tools which can be used to access the documents.

The Arolsen Archives – an international organization in Germany

The ITS was initially planned as a temporary facility – just like the IRO, which was responsible for managing it. However, it soon became clear that the process of tracing missing persons would take longer than initially thought. And in 1950 already, the organization was faced with another new task: to provide documentation of persecution for compensation claims. So when the IRO closed down in 1951, the ITS remained in operation and the Allied High Commission for Germany (HICOG) took over its management. When the latter ceased operations in 1955, responsibility for the ITS was passed on to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after much controversial debate centering on the thorny issue of who should have control over the archive. Returning the documents to the perpetrators was unthinkable for many. This is why an International Commission was set up in 1955 to define the guidelines for the work of the ITS, a task it still fulfils to this day. The ICRC withdrew from the leadership of the ITS in 2012 and the Commission, which presently comprises eleven member states, took over the task. In May 2019, the ITS was given the new name "Arolsen Archives – International Center on Nazi Persecution" to reflect its changed role. Although the Arolsen Archives are located in Germany, they were and still are under international supervision.

Tracing and the provision of information in a constant state of change

As the sheer dimensions of the crimes committed by the Nazis became apparent, tracing agencies soon realized that many of those missing would never be found alive and that there were often not even any documents to testify to their fate. Because of this, the ITS also carried out active field searches for missing persons in the 1940's and used various different media such as radio and newspapers to conduct so-called mass tracing campaigns. At the same time, a Special Registry Office was set up in Arolsen in 1948 so that family members could be provided with certification of the death of a relative. Initially, a special organization existed for the tens of thousands of underage victims of Nazi persecution. In 1951, it was integrated into the ITS as the Child Search Branch.

From the 1950's on, when compensation payments first became available, there was a marked change in the needs of the majority of the people who contacted the ITS: they were searching for evidence of persecution for their compensation claims. Up until the end of the 1960's, the ITS received hundreds of thousands of inquiries of this kind. For the staff, this primarily involved searching the documents in the archive for information which they then summarized in standardized certificates of imprisonment or residence. The ITS experienced a second major wave of inquiries from the late 1980's onwards in the context of new debates on forced laborers and other so-called forgotten victims. After the Cold War, when the Federal Republic of Germany and German companies were persuaded to make compensation payments to victims of Nazi persecution from Central and Eastern Europe for the first time, the inbox of the ITS exploded. Hundreds of thousands of inquiries reached the ITS each year, leading to enormous backlogs and waiting periods that sometimes lasted for years – in view of the advanced age of the survivors, these were challenges for which no adequate solution could be found, although a new fast-track procedure was introduced and work began on digitizing the archival holdings.

By contrast, most of the inquiries received today come from second- and third-generation family members who want to reconstruct the fate met by their persecuted relatives. The Arolsen Archives provide them with digital copies of the archival documents as well as explanatory information.

In 2018, 15,720 inquiries concerning 24,520 victims of Nazi persecution reached the institution from all over the world. About 4.3% of inquiries still come directly from survivors or their lawyers, while 67.6% come from family members. 17.5% of the people who submitted inquiries were researchers or educators, and the number of inquiries received from this group is rising year by year. About 600 visitors conducted their own research in the reading room of the Arolsen Archives. 

Open, closed and then open again 

The fact that researchers and educators can receive information from the Arolsen Archives and can do research in the reading room should not be taken for granted, because the archive was closed to the public from the beginning of the 1980's up until 2007. On the one hand, the then Director justified the isolation of the institution by pointing to the growing importance of issues connected with data protection, while on the other hand also highlighting the need for the ITS to focus strictly on its humanitarian mandate as it had been defined in 1955. In the 1960's and 1970's, the previous Director had interpreted the mandate more freely, had sought to network with survivors' associations and memorial sites, and had opened up the archive to researchers. The closure of the ITS archive in the early 1980's weighed all the more heavily because real public debate about Nazi crimes and victim groups who had been marginalized in the past was only just beginning. From then on, there was repeated criticism of the isolation of the ITS at national and international level. This criticism came from academics who were denied access as well as from memorial initiatives and memorial sites associated with the Nazi past. However, the turning point did not come until political pressure built up at the international level, accompanied by media criticism of the behavior of the ITS management and of the long waiting times for inquiries to be answered. In 2007, after a lengthy period of debate, the International Commission decided to reopen the ITS archive to the interested public.

While providing information to former persecutees and their families remains a core task of the Arolsen Archives, the activities of the organization have expanded considerably since the archive was reopened to the public. Professional preservation and restoration work is underway on the original documents, which were inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World register in 2013. Improving access to the archive – via the internet as well as in the reading room – is at the top of the agenda. And the Arolsen Archives now implement and promote projects in the fields of research and education by running a range of activities and initiatives.


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