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Experiencing the “new“ ITS

Aron Hirt-Manheimer of the Union of Reform Judaism and member of the delegation of American Jewish organizations, which visited the International Tracing Service (ITS) last week, combined his stay in Bad Arolsen with a personal interest. The American studied family documents in the ITS archive extensively. “They have filled the gaps in my knowledge,” said Hirt-Manheimer.

The American was born in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Feldafing in 1948 as the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. Based on documents in the ITS archive, he was able to track his family´s fate from their transport to concentration camps, liberation and subsequent emigration to the USA. “I´m surprised at the amount of information,” said Hirt-Manheimer. 

Seeing a previously unknown photo of his father on a DP registration card was an especially moving moment for the American Jew. Hirt-Manheimer was delighted: “It´s in good condition.” He also learned that three weeks elapsed between his father´s transport from Auschwitz and his arrival at Mauthausen. In the interim, Wolf Manheimer, who was shot during an attempted escape, was in a hospital. When doctors saw the prisoner number tattooed on the patient´s arm, they notified the SS.

After the war Aron´s father had to spend three more years in a hospital to recover from his gunshot wound and imprisonment in the concentration camps. According to Hirt-Manheimer, “That explains the long wait until our emigration to America in 1951.” His parents, who were engaged in 1939 and lost touch after the deportation, found each other again with the help of Red Cross Tracing Service lists. A brother saw Wolf Manheimer´s name on a list of survivors in Paris and delivered the good news to the DP camp in Feldafing. Aron´s mother had been detained there as a survivor of the concentration camps Gross Rosen and Flossenbürg. At their reunion Manheimer said that he was “a broken man.” His wife wanted to marry him nonetheless and the marriage lasted until Manheimer´s death in 1984.

“My father kept the Auschwitz number on his arm and always spoke openly about his fate,” reported Hirt-Manheimer. “His experience has shaped my personality and at the same time always given me the courage to start over.” The ITS documents fit the information together like pieces of a puzzle to form a clear picture. Hirt-Manheimer is certain: “The ITS is an astonishing resource for many family histories.”

The ITS is still a long way from becoming a proper research archive. To date, the Central Name Index has been the key to the collection. “It will take enormous resources to organize the Tracing Service´s documents in such a way as to make them accessible for effective research. However, the ITS will become an important place of research.”

The institution´s function is gradually changing from that of a tracing service to an archive for documentation, educational work and research on Nazi crimes, said Hirt-Manheimer. “The ITS is not just a Holocaust archive but an archive of all crimes committed by the Nazi regime in Europe.” Despite its incompleteness, the archive houses a wealth of material on a wide range of topics.

The ITS could be an especially important factor in educational work. “The voices of survivors will be silenced in time. Institutions like the ITS will therefore play an important role in educating about the Holocaust.” It is an issue of remembrance. “It should not only be a Jewish responsibility to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, but of all humanity. Otherwise we open the door to deniers and new genocides,” warned the representative of the Union of Reform Judaism.

“We came here to experience the “new” ITS. It was a fascinating visit in every way,” concluded Hirt-Manheimer. “We are all impressed by the openness of the institution and the accessibility of the documents. The ITS is a treasure trove of history.”