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Students of Darmstadt explore DP Camp Zeilsheim

Four students of the Technical University of Darmstadt spent a week at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen pursuing research on the camp for Jewish Displaced Persons at Zeilsheim near Frankfurt/Main. “As school lessons usually draw the line of historical analysis at the end of the war, the post-war subject of the DPs has attracted my particular attention”, explains student Serpil Aygün.

Investigations by Aygün, Lennart Bartelheimer, Anita Gallo and Linda Körner follow up on a virtual exhibition project on DP camp Zeilsheim worked out by the TU Darmstadt in 2007. The project had been supervised at the time by Dr Susanne Urban, now head of the research department at the ITS. Today’s approach to the subject is to include the documentation of the ITS and, in particular, to close gaps in the biographies of individual lives. “Our intention is to excite young scholars’ curiosity in the topic“, says Urban. “After the Holocaust, Jewish Displaced Persons developed a tremendous will to live – an impressive chapter of Jewish post-war history.”

Before being dissolved in November 1948, DP camp Zeilsheim housed up to 3,400 Jews, mostly survivors from concentration camps in Poland. Mainly under Jewish self-government, the camp had a theatre group, a synagogue, a jazz orchestra, a sports’ club and schools. Most of the Displaced Persons immigrated to Israel and the USA. “Biographies open the door to the history of persecution as a whole“, explains Aygün. “For me, just to cite an example, the chapter of the Jewish partisans – some of whom had been living at DP camp Zeilsheim for a short time – was quite a novelty.”

The evaluation of the documents at the ITS lit on numerous new, even structural aspects of the conditions under which the DPs lived. “I am particularly interested in the problem the separation and dispersion of families over the single DP camps and their final reunion constituted”, relates Körner. “Reading and analysing the files in the ITS archives is an exciting experience. I would come back at any time.” Bartelheimer who is going to base his exam thesis on the records of the ITS, has “struck a new access” to the subjects of emigration after 1945 and compensation. “There is so much you can learn on the people and their fates. Exploring the biographies is history ‘from the bottom’ that allows me to grasp which impact the policy ‘from the top’ had on individuals’ lives.”

Darmstadt student Gallo takes the stance that both, National Socialism and the Holocaust have been well investigated and analysed. “But that comes to an end for the subject of the DPs, and something ought to be done about it. Unfortunately, the time I had at the archives was not sufficient for me to take first respective steps as the material is so voluminous.” Further projects and research schemes are to deepen collaboration between Darmstadt TU and the ITS in the coming months. “I see a huge potential here”, says ITS historian Urban. “The students have proved to be scholarly committed and accurate, and not least of all, empathetic research candidates.”