Tracing: Responding to Inquiries about Victims of Nazi Persecution at the Arolsen Archives

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Anna Meier-Osiński studied the Cultural History of Eastern and Eastern Central Europe, Polish Studies, and Political Science. She is Head of the Tracing Department at the Arolsen Archives.

By Anna Meier-Osiński


The need to reconstruct paths of persecution and clarify the fates of close relatives explains the continuing high numbers of inquiries submitted to the Arolsen Archives (known as the International Tracing Service, ITS, up until May 2019) over the past few years. This is no great surprise, of course, as alongside the 4.3% of inquiries submitted by very elderly survivors, the majority of inquiries received in 2018 (67.6%) came from second- and third-generation family members searching for "puzzle pieces" which might help them find out about the fate suffered by their parents or grandparents. People have many different reasons for embarking on this kind of search and for submitting an inquiry to the Arolsen Archives. Former victims of persecution who survived were often unable to talk about their traumatic experiences or either could not or would not burden their loved ones by telling them about what had happened to them. Many did not speak out until much later, while others no longer had the opportunity or the strength to do so. Members of the second generation, who were also often affected at a conscious or sub-conscious level, were unable to ask the questions they would have needed to ask in order to process and clarify the past. Frequently, it was not until the death of their parents or other former victims of persecution that they were able to find the courage to face this (lifelong) task. Or letters and documents belonging to loved ones only came to light after their death, which often makes these documents the very first sources of information about the persecution itself or the first indication that it even took place. Deathbed revelations of adoptions which had never been spoken about or had been kept secret for years frequently prompt those concerned to search for their own identity and roots relatively late on in their lives. The passage of time often has an important role to play here, it is not unusual for a whole generation to pass before these topics can be tackled, and this is why the Arolsen Archives are currently experiencing a sharp increase in the number of inquiries from the generation of the grandchildren. For some years now, about 20,000 inquiries about specific individuals have been made to the Arolsen Archives each year from relatives alone, asking the organization to trace their family members and clarify their fates. These inquiries mainly reach the Arolsen Archives from Poland, Russia, Germany, the USA, France and Israel. In addition, the Arolsen Archives also receive inquiries about gravesites and nationalities, and since 2014, inquiries have been coming in regarding the so-called "ghetto pensions" and the one-off payments available to former Soviet prisoners of war since 2015.


As a consequence of the opening up of the archives in 2007, the information relatives receive in response to an inquiry includes digital copies of all the documents in the ITS Digital Archive which contain the name of the person who is the subject of that inquiry. In order to make it easier to understand the documents, they are made available in chronological order and are labeled appropriately, i.e. each one includes information about what type of document it is.

Responses to inquiries also include important pointers to archives and other institutions throughout the world that might be able to provide further information on the path of persecution of the specific individual concerned. People who submit inquiries also receive background information on the documentary holdings and further information to help them understand the historical sources. The Arolsen Archives also offer a detailed evaluation of the documents found. Tools which help explain the documents held in the Arolsen Archives so that they can be better understood provide important additional background information. Work on developing other tools is now underway. The online form for submitting inquiries is available in German, English, Polish, Russian and French on the website of the Arolsen Archives. The information sent out in response to inquiries is also provided in the languages listed above.


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