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On the Traces of the Death Marches

60 scholars from eight countries met in late November at a 2-day conference at the ITS (International Tracing Service) in Bad Arolsen to discuss the results of their research on the Holocaust death marches. The conference “On the Traces of the Death Marches – Crimes, Investigation and Remembrance” focused on documents in the ITS archive on the reconstruction of the death marches and the identification of the dead which were compiled between 1946 and 195. Researchers have been systematically examining these documents since 2010. “The ITS project is important in increasing our understanding of this phase of the genocide,” said Daniel Blatman, professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the book “The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide”.

“I am proud that so many renowned experts from important institutions have come to Bad Arolsen,” said mayor Jürgen van der Horst in his opening remarks.  “Their presence highlights the significance of the ITS.” The archive´s collection, compiled by the Allies and known as the “attempted identification of unknown dead,” spans a length of approximately twelve metres and includes information from municipalities, details on the evacuation transports, police reports, maps and original documents from the final days of the concentration camps. “The documents are especially valuable for research as they were produced directly after the end of the war,” said Blatman in his opening presentation.

First academic conference

Conference participants discussed the Allied investigations, the route, complicity in the crimes and remembrance of the atrocities.  There were 17 presentations and 3 panel discussions. “This is the first conference which has focused specifically on the death marches,” said Blatman. They were the worst experience for survivors.

According to Blatman´s calculations, between 25-30 per cent of prisoners died. “This mass murder took place in public and not in faraway eastern Europe. It also created new perpetrators. The murderers were no longer just members of the SS, police and the army. “Civilians were now playing a much larger role. They saw concentration camp prisoners as a threat and as living proof of defeat. Never before in history had there been such an outbreak of violence without any type of bureaucratic command. Discussions on this topic could also broaden our understanding of other genocides of the 20th century.”

Researchers had long neglected the topic of the death marches, said Blatman. The younger generation´s interest in local events has spurred new, more intensive research. One such researcher, Josephine Ulbricht from the University of Cologne, spoke about the death march of Flossenburg concentration camp. “I was able to trace the exact route of the march based on materials in the ITS archive, which were everywhere in almost every small community,” she explained. The documents are “a treasure trove which should be unearthed. Thanks to the Allied´s records we are also able to see the individuals affected by the crimes.”

Albert Knoll, historian and archivist at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial, remarked that the records in the ITS archive have been enlightening. “The documents clearly show the route of the death marches, and this knowledge helps us place memorial plaques along the route.” The documents also play a significant role in clarifying individual fates. “We often heal an open wound when we can give family members exact information. We have found important references to the Memorial´s death book.”

Martin Clemens Winter from the University of Leipzig said that the documents clearly show the quantitative dimension of the death marches. “The documents need to be analyzed in greater detail.” Winter is currently writing his dissertation on the German civilian population´s involvement in the atrocities, and compares mayors´ statements with police investigations. He was impressed by the “enormous efforts undertaken in the post-war period to investigate these crimes.”

According to Marc Mazurovsky from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum the research on the death marches is almost completely based on eyewitness accounts. “There are no documents of a bureaucracy which communicated clear instructions.” The historian analyzed death marches from the concentration camp Auschwitz along with geographers, and would like to see an open debate on research results in which “commonly used terminology could be called into question. The conference has provoked new insights and food for thought.”

Yearbook on Research Results

All conference participants agreed that their research should be continued and expanded. “The ITS as an institution could coordinate future work, and we should each concentrate on one aspect,” suggested Blatman. Dr. Susanne Urban, head of research at the ITS, supported the idea. She said that the conference showed that the material in the ITS archive adds to previous research and could also shed new light on how the Allies dealt with the atrocities. “We will continue the discussion on this aspect of National Socialist history and would hope that other researchers get involved.”

Initial results of the yearlong academic analysis of the ITS documents will be presented in a yearbook entitled “Freilegungen - Auf den Spuren der Todesmärsche (Uncovered – On the Traces of the Death Marches.” The nearly 400-page book will be published in June 2012 by Wallstein Verlag.