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The Long Shadow of Nazi Crimes

Two sisters at the reunion of the family

Bringing families together even today

There are many individual reasons why a person might first choose to wait, or have to wait, until time has passed before setting out to find traces of family members. Because time is passing, it is increasingly seldom that survivors themselves turn to the ITS for help. In these special cases it could be that it is precisely the long span of time that makes the confrontation with the traumatic past remotely bearable. The majority of the inquiries nowadays come from the generations of the children and grandchildren. The trauma of what was experienced has left its mark on them as well. More information can help in finding family roots and understanding one’s own family history better. Often the survivors could not or did not want to speak about their persecution. In some cases this may be because of family secrets, such as children born out of wedlock whose parent or parents had been forced laborers. After the death of their parents or grandparents, many have a deep-seated need to learn more about their family’s past and to use every chance possible to find traces leading to family members. When people send inquiries to the ITS, they always receive a detailed explanation as well as copies of the relative documents from the ITS archives.

Additionally it is possible to visit the ITS and be shown the relevant documents in their original form.

Margret Schlenke has been the Head of the Tracing and Fate Clarification Department since 1976. In an interview she talks about her work.


The original documents

  • Bei einem Besuch erklären die Mitarbeiter des ITS die vorab recherchierten Dokumente

    Bei einem Besuch erklären die Mitarbeiter des ITS die vorab recherchierten Dokumente

  • Survivors of Nazi persecution and their family members are warmly invited to come visit the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen. Please remember to give sufficient notice prior to your visit, so that we can retrieve the documents out of the archive for you. Moreover, our Visitor Service staff members make special arrangements for your visit in order to provide you with as much information as you would like.

    Here you will find everything you need to know about visiting the ITS.


    • The Search for Family Members

      A daughter can embrace her mother for the first time after 70 years; brothers and sisters find out about each other and finally meet; family members begin an intense correspondence across continents. Even today, in approximately 30 cases a year the ITS is able to bring families together. Those are very emotional moments  which, in some cases, drastically change the lives of the families. Here, the ITS carries out research not only in its own holdings, but also looks into administrative offices and other archives. Especially in the cases of tracing requests from abroad and contact with people from other countries, the ITS works closely with the network of tracing services of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Society.  A search of this kind can take many months. It is understood that contact is only then established when all those involved agree to this.

      The inquiries (themselves) to the ITS have also developed into an important information source in and of themselves.  The correspondence compiled is on more than three million former victims of Nazi persecution. These correspondence files contain letters from family members, from administrative offices, from insurance companies and help organizations. When the ITS receives an inquiry, it is possible to check whether this same person had been the subject of a previous inquiry. In some cases this can offer decisive information.

    • Documents Provide Certainty

      Because of persecution, exile, or emigration, there are sometimes documents such as certificates of birth, marriage, or death that families don’t have. The tracing service of the ITS also involves research on these kinds of documents. It can also happen that, although a person-related search may turn out unsuccessful, important documents are found because of the inquiries made at administrative offices. This can mean a lot, for example in cases where a person may not have known their place of birth before then, or where the precise date of a family member’s death is discovered.  

    • A Place for Mourning

      When years pass and the fate of parents, siblings or other loved ones is never clarified, a gravestone can be the redeeming end of a long search. In some cases, family members contact the ITS directly and ask for research on a gravesite. A visit to the grave or, if the distance is too far, photos of the gravesite can help to fill a painful void.

    Partners in the Search

    When working on tracing missing persons, it is often a matter of doing detective work in trying to reconstruct the paths people’s lives have taken them. The extent of the search is not confined to Germany and the neighboring European countries, but also often stretches across continents. The cooperation between the ITS and the national tracing services of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Moon is often very helpful in this. For many years there has been a tried and tested network, so that the communication between the partners in the interests of the inquirers can run smoothly and quickly.

    In order to foster this cooperation, ITS staff members take part in the annual meeting of the “Restoring Family Links” (RFL) group that is organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Moon in Geneva. The RFL meeting serves to keep the Family Link Network up-to-date and to share experiences.

    At the moment, the cooperation with the Tracing Service of the Polish Red Cross Society is especially close. Ever since the political upheaval in East-Central Europe in 1989 there have been many inquiries coming from Poland regarding Polish victims of Nazi persecution.