International Tracing Service

What is the International Tracing Service?

The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen documents the fate of the victims of Nazi persecution. The archival holdings encompass a total of about 30 million documents on concentration camps, Gestapo prisons, ghettos as well as on forced labour and displaced persons.

Which are the tasks performed by the ITS?

Among the principal tasks of the ITS are:

  • the provision of information to survivors and family members of Nazi persecutes.
  • the clarification of fates and the search for family members.
  • the description, preservation, conservation and restoration of the historical documents.
  • research, education and remembrance.

Why is the ITS located in Bad Arolsen?

The town in North Hesse was chosen to be the site of the tracing service after the Second World War, because it was situated right in the middle of the four occupation zones. Having remained virtually undamaged by war, Arolsen offered the convenience of intact telegraph and telephone cables. The ITS moved into an office building (today the town hall) and then into former SS barracks as these had sufficient space for its documents and the great number of employees. When the NATO laid claim to the barracks in 1952, a new main building at Große Allee, which still houses the archives today, was built for the ITS. To have enough room, the ITS rented another three buildings in town.

What is the history of the ITS?

The institution’s initial tasks were: to help the survivors of National Socialist persecution, to clarify fates and coordinate the search for any next-of-kin who might have survived. Hence the name of the institution: International Tracing Service. Over the years and decades, the mandates of the tracing service were gradually widened for instance by building up the archives, collecting and preserving documents on Nazi persecution, on the exploitation of people through forced labour and on displaced persons. Additional tasks came to be the provision of information from the documents to survivors and family members of victims, the issue of certificates allowing people to claim pension and indemnification payments and the assistance with court proceedings against Nazi criminals. Since the opening of the archives in November 2007, the ITS has increasingly engaged in the fields of research, remembrance and educational work.

Who runs the International Tracing Service?

The activities of the International Tracing Service are supervised by an International Commission with representatives from eleven member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America). Their legal basis is stipulated by the Berlin agreements which came into force in January 2013. The institution is financed from the budget of the German Federal Government. The German Federal Archives are the institutional partner for the ITS. The director of the ITS is appointed by the International Commission, acts as its secretary and is accountable directly to the Commission. Since January 2013, Rebecca Boehling is the director of the ITS.

Why did the ICRC withdraw from the management of the ITS?

The opening of the archives to research in November 2007 highlighted the necessity of changes in both management and archival tasks. Research and education and the archival description of the documents gain more importance in relation to the tasks of tracing and clarifying fates. Since these new activities are not part of its humanitarian mission, the ICRC withdrew from the management of the ITS in December 2012. It held that position since 1955 according to the Bonn agreements.

Will the ICRC remain involved in the work of the ITS after its withdrawal?

The ICRC takes part in International Commission meetings as a permanent observer. A liaison office was opened at the ICRC in Geneva to mediate between the ITS and the National Red Cross Societies on issues relating to the reuniting of families. The humanitarian work is continued in the same way as today.

What role do the German Federal Archives play?

The German Federal Archives are the new institutional partner of the ITS since January 2013. The role of the institutional partner is to advise and work together with the International Commission and the director of the ITS to implement policy in fields such as conservation and preservation, cataloguing and indexing, budgeting, human resource management and auditing. The Federal Archives also attend International Commission meetings as a permanent observer.

Do the access rules for the Federal Archives also apply to the ITS?

No, the regulations for access to the ITS´s archival holdings are laid down by the director in coordination with the International Commission. Germany’s Federal Archival Law does not apply in the ITS archives.

Which documents are preserved in the archives?

The ITS archives preserve documents from the National Socialist and the immediate post-war eras subdivided by the three relevant fields: incarceration, forced labour and displaced persons. To these can be added records that were created in the course of the tracing service’s activities, e.g. the Central Name Index, the child-tracing archives and the correspondence with survivors, family members of the victims of Nazi persecution and other institutions.

Which is the current digitisation status?

The ITS will digitise its entire collections. Among these are documents on concentration camps, ghettos and prisons (about 18 million images), the Central Name Index of the ITS (about 42 million images), registration cards on displaced persons (about 7 million images), documents relating to forced labour (about 13 million images), records from DP camps and on emigration action after the Second World War (about 5 million images) and the records of the child tracing branch and of the so-called general documents. The scanning of the three million correspondence case files will take some years’ time still.

Which countries receive copies of the documents?

Following the decision taken by the International Commission, every one of the eleven member states may receive a digital copy of the documents kept in Bad Arolsen. Seven countries have already asked for a copy up to now. In Israel the ITS documents can be consulted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in the USA at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, in Poland at the Institute for National Remembrance in Warsaw, in Luxembourg at the Centre for Documentation and Research on Resistance, in Belgium at the Belgian State Archives in Brussels, in France at the French National Archives in Paris and in Great Britain at the Wiener Library in London.

Will the documents be placed on the internet?

This is not envisaged for the time being. In the past, the documents were organised and only made accessible by names ideally serving the ends of a tracing service. Considering that a description by place, origin and relevant topics is still missing, users either cannot selectively browse the data volumes at all or only with the assistance by an ITS expert. What complicates matters is that some personal information in the documents may be most confidential and sensitive. In accordance with the 2006 amendment protocol, every government may make the documents accessible for research in the premises of suited archives in its country. The researchers’ dealings with the information will be subject to the domestic data privacy guidelines of the country they live in. At present, the documents from the ITS archives may be consulted in seven sites worldwide.

Which finding aids are available?

Striving to make the documents in the ITS archives accessible to research, the institution commenced describing and cataloguing its archival collections in December 2008. Up to now, the Central Name Index has been an important key to the documents. In future, finding aids are to be made available which describe the origin of the documents and their content. The finding aids cover the holdings which are not described in details in the general inventory and the searchable archival holdings and are of particular interest for historical research. In view of the dimensions of the archival collections, their description will take some years’ time.

Who may pursue research in the archives?

The archives of the International Tracing Service are open to research projects. Scientists, regional historians, teachers and other interested persons may have access to the digital archives of the ITS. The access provisos are defined in the regulations for access and in the rules on fees and tariffs. Reading rooms, a database and a scholarly library are at the disposal of interested researchers. The institution itself accompanies research projects, enters into cooperation with other institutions, develops own projects and composes scholarly publications.

What does the ITS in the field of education?

The ITS feels bound by the task to communicate and pass on the significance of the documents kept in its archives to the general public and to succeeding generations. That is why the institution has worked out an educational concept of cooperation with schools, universities and other educational institutions. It provides for projects, seminars and workshops as well as for material to be used by schools and for advanced out-of-school training.

Does ITS still receive inquirires from survivors and family members of victims?

Every year the ITS receives more than 10,000 inquiries from about 70 countries relating to the fate of Nazi persecutees and former forced labourers. In 52 percent of the cases, the inquirer is interested in details on the persecution of concentration camp, ghetto and Gestapo prison inmates. In another 28 percent, information is requested on forced labour, and a third quota of 20 percent is interested in retracing the post-war history of displaced persons. To an ever-increasing rate, inquiries are filed by the second and third generations.

How long does it take to process a request?

As a rule, new requests by survivors and family members of Nazi persecutees should be answered within eight weeks. But due to the amount of requests, four months are the time frame at the moment. The search for family members which might involve other institutions in Germany and abroad takes between three months and two or three years. The time for an answer to requests by researchers depends on the subject.

Is it possible to visit the ITS?

Visitors to the International Tracing Service are invited to a Power Point presentation which offers an introduction into the tasks and history of the institution, the archival collections and individual fates. For organizational reasons, visitors are kindly requested to give notice in advance. Survivors of Nazi persecution and relatives of victims can take a look into the original documents. Prior to a visit to ITS, they should file an inquiry and schedule an appointment.


How many employees work for the ITS?

Almost 280 people work for the ITS, of which one third is involved in the digitisation and another third in the process of inquiries from survivors and family members of victims. Adjusting to the change of its tasks and objectives, the institution strives for a structural change and, consequently, for a reduction in personnel in a long-term perspective. With the women’s share in ITS staff coming to 78 percent, the male employment rate is 22 percent. 32 percent of the staff are part-timers. The quota of severely handicapped people in staff numbers as a whole is fairly high at the ITS, i.e. 14 percent.

How is the ITS budget financed?

The ITS continues to be financed by the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2012, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media took over responsibility for the ITS budget from the Federal Ministry of the Interior. In addition to the funding by the Federal Government, the ITS may receive voluntary contributions from the public as well as private sources to fulfil its objectives and tasks.

How many effects does the ITS keep?

The ITS archives still house about 2,800 effects of which the names of the former owners are known. The personal belongings are mainly wallets with papers, letters and photos the Nazis had seized from the prisoners when they entered the concentration camp. Money and valuables were seized by the Nazis. The effects therefore have no material value, while their sentimental value may be enormous for the next-of-kin of a former prisoner. The ITS is trying to return the leftovers to the families.

Where do the effects come from?

While most of the effects come from concentration camps Dachau and Neuengamme, some few could be retraced to Amersfoort, Bergen-Belsen, Natzweiler and Compiègne. The indemnification office of the federal state of Bavaria and the Administrative Office for Inner Restitutions had entrusted the effects into the care of the ITS in 1963.