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Conservation of original documents at the ITS Archives

This year the International Tracing Service (ITS) of Bad Arolsen will be conserving around 400,000 original documents from the Nazi era. Starting today, facsimiles of important documents are being used for visitor tours. “ITS stores documents of enormous historical relevance on the persecution, exploitation and murder of millions of people. It is essential that these files are conserved for the coming generations”, said chief archivist Udo Jost.

More than 30 million documents on the fate of approximately 17.5 million victims of the Nazi regime are stored in the archives of the International Tracing Service. Around three-fourths of the documents are originals from the twelve-year regime of the National Socialists and the immediate post-war period. Among the original documents to be preserved this year are individual files from the Buchenwald concentration camp such as prisoners’ registration cards and personal property cards, lists from the concentration camps Neuengamme, Natzweiler and Mauthausen, and Gestapo cards from Koblenz and Frankfurt am Main.

ITS has now made facsimiles of some of the originals such as the death book from the Buchenwald concentration camp, a list of Jewish forced labourers who worked for Oskar Schindler, a transportation card from Anne Frank, and a Gestapo card for Konrad Adenauer – 60 individual documents, two folders and two books in total. They will be shown during visitor tours. “The goal is to protect the originals in view of the growing number of visitors to ITS ever since the archived opened up in November 2007”, said Jost.

The documents had been used as working papers for many decades. With their help, ITS clarified the fate of those persecuted by the NS regime and was able to issue certificates for pension funds and indemnification payments. “This usage has left its marks”, said the chief archivist. In addition, paper underlies a natural ageing process. The documents have already held up in the facility’s archives for at least 60 years. “The quality of paper declined drastically around the end of WWII, so the documents are extremely acidic and thus decay faster”, explained Jost.

Because the entire inventory of the archive is currently being digitised, access to the original documents will only be necessary in certain individual cases in the future. This opens up the perspective of long-term conservation. In 2001, the International Tracing Service conducted a damage analysis. A priority list was compiled according to which the documents have been conserved step-by-step ever since. The analysis revealed an urgent need for action in the case of 4.3 million documents from concentration camps, ghettos and Gestapo prisons. The German federal government currently subsidises this effort with 250,000 euros per annum.

The degree of damage in the original documents can vary. To conserve and restore the papers, ITS is working together with the PAL Preservation Academy GmbH of Leipzig. This is primarily being done through mass deacidification in a complex chemical process which extends the durability of the paper several times over. Yet conservation efforts also include delamination, stabilising the paper, closing tears, removing any adhesive tape or punched holes, eliminating mildew and restoring ink corrosion.

Throughout 2008, 12,826 original lists from concentration camps were delaminated and deacidified. Mechanical damages to these documents were also repaired. In addition, 224,467 individual documents were deacidified and 1,653 were restored. All together, a total of nearly two million items from the ITS inventory have been processed to date. By 2018, all of the documents on incarceration can be restored. “We would like to intensify our efforts even more, but of course, that’s also a matter of finances”, said Jost.