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Empathy for the fates of victims and refugees

In addition to fulfilling its tasks of keeping the memory alive, the ITS would also like to make a contribution for today’s society“, said the Director of the International Tracing Service (ITS) Floriane Hohenberg at the public lecture The refugee crisis and human rights in terms of my work for OSCE and the ITS” in the Christian Daniel Rauch Museum in Bad Arolsen. Hohenberg spoke to the almost 60 people attending the lecture about the current refugee situation in Europe and the role of the International Tracing Service (ITS) in raising awareness regarding issues such as war and persecution.

Europe would have to face the fact that the current refugee migrations will continue, said Hohenberg, who, until the end of 2015, had served as Head of the Tolerance und Non-Discrimination Department at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organizations for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Never before in recent human history have there been so many refugees at one time. The United Nations speak of approximately 65 million people fleeing from civil war, armed conflicts, persecution, and poverty. Europe took in around one million refugees in 2015. “The majority of the people are received in the immediate border states or countries”, Hohenberg clarified. “In this respect, Europe is facing an enormous challenge, but one that is comparatively manageable.”

As a consequence of World War II and the crimes of persecution and deportation committed by the National Socialist regime, millions of people found themselves on the move. In Germany alone there were more than 10 million Displaced Persons by the end of the war. In addition, there were the ethnic Germans who fled or were expelled from their homes and the damages from the war. “Perhaps we should call this to mind occasionally”, the expert on human rights reminded. What is missing today is, among other things, a documentation of the current migrations and their individual fates. “This is not solely the responsibility of the authorities. Other institutions also need to do their part.” Positive examples of refugee initiatives already existed; here the ITS could imagine cooperative projects.

The current economic crisis, fear of marginalization, loss of trust in institutions, the dangers of terrorism as well as unresolved questions of identity and values: for many people in Europe these have all led to a general feeling of uncertainty and lack of security, thus creating a threat to democracy. Hate messages on the web, questionnaire results showing frightening intolerance towards minorities, criminal attacks on refugees are on the rise. These attitudes are having an increasing effect on the middle class, to the extent that political parties with right-wing tendencies are forming. “In light of the refugee situation we have to ask ourselves how we wish to be perceived as a society and where we see our roles in that society”, said Hohenberg.

Stimulate a debate about our values

By drawing on its documentation, the ITS could help raise awareness for the issues of persecution, flight and migration, and show what long-term effects ostracism, war, persecution, and deportation have on victims and their families. An example for this are the some 1,000 inquiries that the ITS still receives every month, 70 years after the end of World War II. “The correspondence files provide an account of the presence of history in the present.” The ITS exhibit on Displaced Persons  could also help make clear to society what it means to have to start over again, far from home. In this respect, the ITS exhibition on DPs could provide a connection to the present.

“We want to bring our documents out into the world, to facilitate understanding about what happened in the past and to create awareness for the fact that the repercussions of the past are felt for decades”, Hohenberg explained. The new archival building that is being planned, the online collections and the support for research and educational projects are just a few examples of the ITS activities reflecting this aim. “We would like to help create empathy for the fates of victims and their families. The ITS can help stimulate a debate in society about our values”, Hohenberg concluded.