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International Meeting of Tracing Services in Bad Arolsen

This week the International Tracing Service (ITS) is hosting an international meet-up with the Red Cross and Red Crescent tracing services. Thirty-two tracing service representatives from 27 countries and ten delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva have arrived in Bad Arolsen for the three-day meeting. Among other things, the topic of their discussions are the various experiences made with tracing requests in conjunction with WWII, as well as the future cooperation between the Red Cross societies and the International Tracing Service. “The objective of the meeting is to further optimise the collaborative efforts between the individual tracing services,” said ITS Director and ICRC delegate Jean-Luc Blondel. “For the people concerned, the clarification of their family members’ fate is of enormous relevance just as much today as it has been in the past.”

The main issues on the meeting’s agenda are the sensitive approach to family reunions, effective processing of tracing requests, the consequences for the humanitarian work of opening up the ITS archive, and the future role of ITS when the ICRC is to withdraw from managing the institution as planned. At the same time, the representatives from the different tracing services have the chance to familiarise themselves with the more than 30 million documents on the victims of the Nazi regime the ITS archive holds. “A good international network facilitates the successful work of the tracing services,” says ITS Director Blondel.

In Eastern Europe in particular, family reunions and the clarification of fates are still an issue today, 64 years after the end of the war. Eastern Europeans suffered extremely from Nazi crimes and the aftermath of WWII. “Many families were torn apart by the Second World War, trough forced labour and incarceration. Reuniting them was often made impossible by the Cold War that followed,” reports Iolanta Mikhailova, Vice-Director of the Red Cross Tracing and Information Service in Russia. “Clarifying their fates is therefore still a vital humanitarian task for us.” Around one-third of the 3000 tracing cases currently filed in Moscow still have something to do with WWII, she says. “The information that we’re able to procure from the archives of the ITS is extremely important for our work.”

One example of successful cooperation between ITS and an Eastern European tracing service is the recent case of Gerhard Röser from Mecklenburg, Germany. In search of his biological father, Röser had turned to the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen in September 2007. His Czech father had been a forced labourer in Leipzig during WWII. In January 1945, the forced labourers’ quarters were vacated before Antonin Svab had learnt that his secret lover - a German - was pregnant.

Thanks to the collaboration between the Red Cross Tracing Service in the Czech Republic and enquiries made with the Saxon State Archive, Leipzig registration office, Federal Administrative Office and the ecclesiastic tracing service in Passau, the family of the father could now be found. Röser’s father himself passed away in 1987 without ever learning that he had a son in Germany. But three half-brothers, Petr, Jinrich und Antonin Svab of Prague, were willing to meet up with Röser. “The sheer impossible has been accomplished,” said the 63-year-old German with joy. “I am deeply grateful for the contact I now have with my biological father’s family members and that I was able to find out more about him. I hope that my case helps others pluck up the courage to keep on searching for their own families.”

For Ivana Holubova, Director of the Red Cross Tracing Service in the Czech Republic, fates like that of Röser’s are not isolated cases. “These families are often hush about the past so that even decades after the end of the war, there are still open issues and family secrets. For your own self-image though, it is invaluable to know about your personal origins and identity.”