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A Treasure Trove of Great Magnitude

Historian Robert Sommer sifted through documents archived by the International Tracing Service (ITS) for three days in mid-July while conducting research on the subject of brothels in concentration camps. The doctoral candidate needed the information for the publication of his PhD thesis. Sommer is also a freelance staff member at the Ravensbrück Memorial Site, where he is working on a new version of the exhibition “forced sexual labour at Nazi concentration camps”.

During his visit to Arolsen, he focussed particularly on how the women were persecuted before they landed in the brothels. In some cases, the ITS documents also indicated what had happened to the women after the war. “I should have come to ITS a lot sooner,” said Sommer. “The prisoners’ personal data cards provided extremely significant information.”

From 1942 on, the SS forced female concentration camp prisoners to engage in prostitution at prisoners’ brothels even though they were officially illegal in the German Reich. Male prisoners were allowed to visit the brothels if they collected “bonus points” in advance by performing especially good work. With this scheme, the SS wanted to increase the workers’ productivity at the armament factories and simultaneously counteract the much-feared spread of homosexuality at the camps.

The studio exhibition on this subject at the Ravensbrück Memorial Site was created in 2007 in cooperation with the Viennese association “Die Aussteller” (the exhibitors) and the Universität der Künste Berlin (Berlin university of fine arts). It shows original documents and barrack plans, and relays the women’s situation at the various brothels.

The exhibition is highly popular with both visitors and other memorial sites. “In such, an updated version of this travelling exhibition was essential,” says Sommer. “At ITS, I was able to discover a lot of new, additional information about the women who were forced to work at concentration camp brothels.” This information has now been incorporated in the travelling exhibition. Researchers who had previously visited ITS had recommended Sommer visit its archives in Arolsen

The ITS staff showed the historian how to use the in-house software. Sommer was then able to check names himself and look through documents. He had brought along a list of names to investigate. “There is some amount of spadework necessary. But I never would have counted on finding out what I did,” said Sommer enthusiastically. “ITS is a treasure trove of great magnitude."