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„Nothing from the time before and during the Shoah“

In March 1998, René Manu contacted the International Tracing Service (ITS) requesting access to the documents on his father's persecution. Daniel Manu and his family had been deported from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp by the National Socialists – he was the only family member to survive. René Manu received an overview of his father’s persecution route as well as hospital stays after his liberation. But he was denied direct access to the original records, as this would have conflicted with the ITS regulations at that time. On his second inquiry, 17 years later, the ITS had undergone major changes due to the opening of the archive. René Manu explains why the documents are so important and why his visit to the archive meant so much to him. 

You submitted your first request to the ITS at a time when viewing the original documents was not allowed and no copies of documents were sent out. How important are these copies to you?

The copies are very important to me, for two reasons: Firstly, there are no documents, no photos, no clothes, no toys, absolutely nothing from before and during the Shoah. My father survived as the only member of a large family, however he lost everything from his previous life.

For this reason, the three copies from the time of my father's concentration camp imprisonment – the excerpts from the admission lists of Auschwitz concentration camp, the X-ray diagnosis book of its prisoner's hospital and the number register of Flossenbürg concentration camp – are of special importance to me. These are the only three documents of his entire life prior to his liberation.

Secondly, it makes an enormous emotional difference whether we acquire knowledge about the Shoah from books and films, exhibitions and memorials – or whether we suddenly hold original documents about it in our hands. It acquires much more depth. All of a sudden history comes closer, becomes visible, tangible, direct, intimate, personal.

How did you experience your second contact with the ITS?

I found the second contact with the ITS to be really good. My request for access to the files was answered swiftly with a positive reply. The ITS proved to be very flexible when preparing for my visit. They even granted me an appointment on the day and at the time I wanted to visit. And when I asked whether it was possible to photocopy documents on site, I was told that I would receive photocopies of all available documents when I visited them.

During my visit I was attended by a member of staff who presented a harmonious mix of professionalism and empathy. I had the feeling that my individual needs and emotions were taken care of. They gave me the time I needed and the break I needed.

Then, the employee asked me if I wanted to take a look at the in-house archive. Of course I did! This was a unique, very intense experience which left a lasting impression. So many original files on so many shelves and in so many cabinets – I had the feeling that thousands upon thousands of individual fates are suddenly tangible, that the incomprehensible was given thousands of faces.

A few days after my visit to the ITS, I received an additional copy by mail I had asked for. Furthermore, I received a contact address where I might be able to find more documents about my father's fate.

The number of enquiries to the ITS has risen in recent years. An increasing number of enquiries are coming from the following generations including grandchildren. What do you think is the reason why interest is not on the decline?

In my opinion, there are a number of reasons, all of which are highly personal. For instance, my father wanted me to wait until after his death before starting to investigate.

The Shoah and the traumatic experiences of the survivors have become part of the "family DNA". They are palpable over generations, and can even be experienced as an element of the lives of their descendants. And perhaps increasingly more descendants feel the deep urge to find a way to deal with what happened and with the noticeable impact it has had on their families. Maybe more grandchildren are getting in touch now because it's easier for them after the generation of their grandparents has passed away.

The murder of family members and years of fear of death change every human being and these changes affect everyday family life, no matter whether the Shoah was discussed or was a taboo. Because children sense when something is wrong. Things that have happened influence all aspects of daily life, thoughts and feelings, decisions and actions. A couple of examples from my family of origin: it was always important to my father for the family not to attract any attention, as this could have negative consequences. Reticence was the guiding principle. Being alive was enough. Anything more, such as showing wishes and needs, striving for happiness and success, was already too much. It entailed risk. And in old age, my father wished for a cremation which is most unusual for the Jewish religion. However, he wanted to be cremated because his "entire family passed through the chimney".

Apart from the family context, there is also the social context. When I say this, I am not referring to "big politics" or the daily news, right-wing radicalism, right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism, or also from the political centre. I mean the personal experiences within our environment which show us how far away we still are from "normality". As it is so aptly stated in literature, one is also "made a Jew". It was like that with my father. After he passed away, it was not only "Mr. Manu is dead", but also "The Jew in the house is dead". And today, a generation later, nothing has changed. Regardless of whether I identify myself as a Jew or whether I am identified as such. It happens time and again that the behaviour of my opposite changes, the atmosphere, the topic of conversation. It does not take long and it will be about Judaism and anti-Semitism, about Israel and Palestine. Someone I met recently said: "I've always wanted to meet a living Jew," and people I have known for longer wish me "Merry Christmas" every year. No offense meant. But I find it ignorant towards me to never hear "I wish you a beautiful Rosh Hashana", considering my family history and Jewish history. That's how the past affects the present!