Israeli Holocaust survivor Moshe Bar-Yuda was a young boy in Czechoslovakia when World War II broke out. He managed to survive in Hungary by assuming false identities and made it to Palestine before the end of the war. Later, he reunited with his mother, who was released from her married status by the Tel Aviv rabbinical court in 1948, on the presumption that her husband Alfred Kastner had been murdered in the Holocaust. There were rumors that Kastner had been killed at Majdanek, or perhaps Auschwitz.
In 2008, Bar-Yuda wanted to see if he could finally get an answer as to where his father died, so he approached Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for help. A list of deportees to the Novaky camp in Slovakia from March 27, 1942 in the Holocaust remembrance center’s archives confirmed Bar-Yuda’s childhood recollection that his father had been snatched from the street as they walked on the Sabbath before Passover.
But the answer to where Kastner was killed was not at Yad Vashem. It was in Bad Arolsen, Germany, buried somewhere in a complex of six buildings filled from floor to ceiling with 30 million original documents relating to the fates of 17.5 million victims of Nazi persecution. This massive archive, known at the International Tracing Service (ITS), contains a staggering amount of material, most of it collected by Allied forces as they liberated Europe, beginning in 1943.
The ITS shelves are crammed with concentration camp documents, transport and deportation lists, Gestapo arrest and prison records, and forced and slave labor documentation. The archive also includes millions of displaced persons’ I.D. cards and files, as well as post-war resettlement and emigration records. There are cemetery records for deceased forced laborers and prisoners, and concentration camp survivor testimonies taken by liberating forces. Some 2.5 million files alone contain post-WWII correspondence from people inquiring about the fates and whereabouts of their loved ones.
Among these hundreds of millions of pages are two that solved the mystery of Alfred Kastner’s murder: a list of people burned in the crematoria at Majdanek on September 7, 1942, and a letter from Bar-Yuda’s mother to ITS dated from 1958 inquiring about information on Kastner. The birth date Bar-Yuda’s mother gave for his father in the letter matched the birth date listed for the Alfred Kastner on the crematoria list, which confirmed for Bar-Yuda that his father was indeed murdered in Majdanek.
Bar-Yuda now not only knows where his father was killed, but also the exact date.
“After saying kaddish for my father for 60 years on the general day of mourning (10 Tevet), now I have a specific yahrtzeit. And while it doesn’t comfort me, or make me happy, there is a kind of satisfaction here. I can now move forward,” he said.
These and the other ITS records were for the most part inaccessible to the public until 2007. Even some Holocaust academics and educators were unaware of this enormous, invaluable archive and its holdings until it was opened up following 10 years of pressure that eventually led to the ratification of amendments to international agreements governing the ITS.
Much has changed in the decade since the ITS was more broadly opened, but much more could be done to make its contents accessible to all those interested worldwide. Approximately 200 million pages are digitized (80% of the collection) and shared with seven partner institutions, including Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. However, only 80,000 of the archive’s 30 million documents can be directly accessed online at the ITS website by a personal computer.
Many believe that developments with the ITS over the next decade will be crucial, as they watch the number of Holocaust survivors dwindle and Holocaust denial grow.
“Holocaust denial today takes many forms — some by selectively distorting the details, some by diminishing the specific targeting of Jews for annihilation, some by excusing the behavior of the perpetrators, and some by transforming their anti-Semitic intent into anti-Israel rhetoric. All of these forms of Holocaust denial — trivialization, minimization, universalization or inversion are all forms of denial of central aspects of the Holocaust,” wrote Dr. Elana Yael Heideman, executive director of the Israel Forever Foundation, which co-sponsored a February symposium in Jerusalem honoring the 10th anniversary of the opening of the ITS.
“The impeccable records kept by the Nazis are crucial to countering these attempts, as they will enable new researchers to accurately and specifically address circumstances and details of the dehumanization and extermination processes for future generations to learn from,” Heideman wrote in a Times of Israel blog post.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Times of Israel spoke with a number of individuals closely associated with the ITS archive to learn more about the process of opening it more broadly, and how it is increasingly used by survivors, their families, and scholars to reveal evidence, answers and insights that have been hidden away since the war.
A records dump and tracing bureau
The Allied forces began collecting whatever Nazi documentation they came across as they liberated Europe as early as 1943.
In January 1946, responsibility for these records was transferred to the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) which was tasked with accommodating, reuniting, caring for, and repatriating millions of displaced persons. The collected documents were deposited at Bad Arolsen, Germany, which was located roughly in the center of the four occupation zones and had the rare advantage of an intact infrastructure.
On July 1, 1947, the mandate for dealing with the refugees and displaced persons, as well as the collected documents, was handed over to the IRO (International Refugee Organization). The name of the bureau was changed to “International Tracing Service” on January 1, 1948, reflecting its main postwar purpose — locating survivors and reuniting them with family members.
The ITS has 50 million index cards in its Central Names Index (CNI). Each card lists references to documents the archive holds on a single individual. The index has 849 different spellings for Abramovich alone. Approximately one quarter of the material at ITS pertains to Jewish victims of National Socialism.
In 1955, an International Commission was established to govern the ITS and appoint its director. Nine European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, the UK), plus Israel and the US are represented on the commission.
From 1955 until December 2012, the ITS was managed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on behalf of the commission. Material continued to be collected up until 2007, but as no inventory was ever published of the archive’s holdings during the ICRC era, it was impossible to know the extent and full nature of the information housed at Bad Arolsen. ITS released an online searchable general inventory in English and Germany earlier this year.
In 2013 the International Commission appointed American historian Dr. Rebecca Boehling ITS director. Floriane Azoulay Hohenberg, a human rights expert and French-born Jew of North African heritage assumed the institution’s leadership in January 2016.
The German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) is the institutional partner of the ITS, with the German Federal Government Commission for Culture and Media (BKM) funding the €14 million ITS annual budget in its entirety.
The struggle to open the archive
Paul Shapiro, director of International Affairs, and director emeritus of the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at USHMM, faced many difficulties in his years-long, persistent efforts to open the ITS archives.
As Shapiro wrote in a 2009 article for Reform Judaism magazine, he felt a moral obligation to survivors and their families, and knew that it was a race against time to get it opened before the last survivors passed away.
“The number of visitors to ITS over the years was extremely small because people didn’t know what was there. Survivors were definitely not welcome,” Shapiro told The Times of Israel.
According to Shapiro, inquiries and requests for information went unacknowledged and unanswered for years. He recounted that when he visited the archive in 2002, then-director Charles Biedermann coolly mentioned that there was a backlog of 450,000 requests for information.
Furthermore, there was no way to know if a response that was eventually issued was correct or complete, because it was ITS policy to never send a copy of the original documents.
“And scholars would just get the run around among the ICRC, ITS management and the German government if they tried to access the archive. So they would just go to sources that were more open to them,” Shapiro added.
Shapiro said he doesn’t suspect the ICRC or the various governments represented on the International Commission of trying to hide anything that was in the archive.
“I think it was simply an issue of their not thinking that this information was important enough to share. In the aftermath of WWII, survivors were not seen as a potent group of people. There was no move made to help them understand their experience,” Shapiro said.
Whereas Shapiro’s efforts have resulted in the provision of broader access to the information held at Bad Arolsen, parts of the archive’s holdings had already been shared since as early as the 1950s.
“ITS has been more open at some times than at others,” ITS director Hohenberg told The Times of Israel in an interview in Tel Aviv, where she was visiting over the recent Passover holiday.
“There was definitely a big change in 2007, but prior to that ITS cooperated with memorial sites, provided material used in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, and also dealt with millions of inquiries from individuals seeking family members or information to support reparations claims,” she said.
Dr. Haim Gertner, director of the archives division and the Fred Hillman chair for Holocaust documentation at Yad Vashem confirmed that in the late 1950s his institution obtained microfilm copies of all ITS holdings acquired to that point pertaining to Jewish victims.
“Yad Vashem staff used the ITS material to help people find information. It was one of the many resources we used over the years,” Gertner said.
However, Gertner acknowledged that the material available now through the digital version shared and regularly updated by ITS is much more extensive and comprehensive. For example, the crematoria list that confirmed where Alfred Kastner was murdered was deposited at ITS only in the 1960s, so it would not have been in the records originally shared with Yad Vashem.
Finding lost relatives, or at least closure
The largest percentage of the 15,600 annual inquiries to the ITS continue to be from survivors and family members (14% and 66% respectively). Of the institution’s 235 employees, 15 devote their time and energy solely to tracing activities. Staff at partner institutions also use the ITS resources to help people uncover either their or their family’s history, or to search for relatives. In addition, genealogists and historical sleuths, both professional and amateur, now include ITS in their toolbox.
In some cases, there are unexpected, emotional reunions such as the one between a German woman named Ursula and an Israeli man named Eli, who discovered they were half-siblings. Ursula and her older brother Gerhard were conceived during a secret relationship between Nathan, a Romanian Jewish survivor, and Ruth, a non-Jewish German woman, in an American-organized DP camp in Heidenheimer Voith-Settlement. Nathan sailed to Palestine in 1948 while Ruth was pregnant with Ursula, who never met nor knew anything about her father — other than that her mother said he was her “one true love.”
After her mother died in 2014, Ursula turned to the ITS for help in discovering her father’s identity. ITS, together with Magen David Adom in Israel, was able to not only provide Ursula with an answer, but also to connect her with her half brother Eli, who was born in 1956 (her father Nathan died in 1986). The siblings, who were thrilled to have found one another, met in person and continue to be in touch weekly.
In other cases, there are no such happy endings — but there is a sense of closure. Shapiro spoke of his own first cousin who waved goodbye to his older brother and father as they were marched out of the Kovno Ghetto on a labor detachment.
“He never saw them again. He didn’t know where they went, or whether they were able to stay together. He’s now 80 years old, and he has agonized his whole life since then over not knowing,” Shapiro said.
An ITS document indicated that the father and brother were both registered at the Stutthof labor camp near Danzig (Gdansk) some months later.
“Their registration numbers were consecutive, which meant that they were still together — at least at that point — which gave my cousin comfort. It was only then that he was finally able to speak about his wartime experience. Until he got that information, he couldn’t talk about it. It just shows you the power of a single document,” Shapiro said.
A unique resource for researchers
Researchers and educators account for 15% of the inquiries that come in every year to ITS, but it is scholarship and education that is experiencing the greatest impact from the opening of the archive.
While Hohenberg and her team at the ITS work to put much more of the archive’s holdings online, along with necessary contextual information, scholars are already diving into the collection both at the now more welcoming Bad Arolsen facility, and at the sites of the digital copy holders. ITS, Yad Vashem, USHMM and other partners are working together to share best practices and devise new strategies for digging out the information buried in the archive.
“We are now working on using technology to better reorganize the information for scholars by creating more access points through more powerful search engine tools,” Hohenberg said.
Hohenberg emphasized the potential of mining the archive’s holdings using big data methodologies. A current big data project underway maps the movement of people as they were persecuted during WWII.
Shapiro noted that scholars are discovering the unique “ground level picture” the ITS archive provides on events of the war. It reveals what happened from the perspective of millions of individuals, using documentary evidence which can be used to compliment diaries and memoirs of survivors. Importantly, it pieces together accurate biographies for those who did not survive to bear witness.
In her work directing USHMM’s academic programs utilizing the ITS archives, Dr. Elizabeth Anthony leads seminars and workshops for scholars and university students on how to study the Holocaust through the ITS lens.
Anthony mentioned a particular Ben and Zelda Cohen fellow, Dr. Janine Holc of Loyola University, Maryland, who came to the museum in 2015-2016 to study a network of subcamps of Gross Rosen.
“[ITS] resulted in benefits to her in ways we couldn’t see at [first]. Once she got into the ITS collections she started to notice patterns among a specific group of Jewish female prisoners forced to labor in a particular camp — they all came from the same small town in Poland, had all been arrested during the same short time period, and were all sent to this one subcamp, where the majority of them remained and were forced to labor throughout the war. Because of the way the ITS records are accessible en masse and digitally, she could analyze them in all new ways and come to new conclusions — possibly first conclusions — about this particular camp,” Anthony said.
ITS has begun sharing early research results from it archival holdings, and Suzanne Brown-Fleming, director of the USHMM visiting scholars program, has published “Nazi Persecution and Postwar Repercussions: The International Tracing Service Archive and Holocaust Research.”
The evidence to combat denial
In his introduction to Brown-Fleming’s book, Shapiro described a 2008 workshop in which 15 scholars dove into the then-newly opened archive to discover its contents and suggest research approaches. The ideas generated were many and varied.
“And while it is true, as was often asserted as an argument against opening the records, that the ITS archive does not house records of grand strategy making or of the perpetrators’ planning and implementation of the ‘Final Solution,’ on the basis of which so much history has been written, ITS powerfully documents the human factor — the grinding routine of man’s inhumanity to man, of prisoners’ efforts to survive one more day, of perpetrator calculations of how to reap the most benefit from disposable human assets consigned to their control, of occasional acts of courage and rescue, and of the herculean efforts of survivors to live after so much death,” Shapiro wrote.
The opening of the ITS to research has been a boon to Holocaust scholars, but according to Yad Vashem’s Gertner, it will certainly not be the last collection of WWII material to come to light.
“Only a portion of the Nazi material made it to the ITS. Some of it is in other archives around the world, and more stuff is being found all the time in Russia and the Eastern Bloc in the post-Soviet era,” he said.
Still, the ITS will play a key role in combating Holocaust denial in the years ahead. All those familiar with it recognize the power of using this vast quantity of dehumanizing documentation to restore the humanity of the Nazis’ victims.
“What’s in that archive is so detailed that no one could manufacture it,” Shapiro said.