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“I have to search name by name”

Thomas Porena, who is earning a doctorate in Southeast European History at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, conducted research at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen for a project on double deportees. In this interview he talks about the difficulties of the research and the important finds in the ITS archive.

What is your current project about?

We are looking at double deportees. These are people from the Balkans – especially present-day Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro – who were deported by the Italians to prisons or concentration camps in Italy before 1943. After the capitulation of Italy, the Nazis came and deported them to the Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and Dachau concentration camps or directly into forced labor, often with the help of the Italian authorities.

Who are you working with on this topic?

It’s an Italian project being carried out for “Topografia per la storia” in connection with the University of Rijeka in Croatia and the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation in Germany. I am looking at the second deportation from Italy to Germany. My colleagues Andrea Giuseppini, Marco Abram and Francesca Rolandi in Italy are dealing with the first part. Parallel to this, we have also conducted research in the archives in Rome, Trieste, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Rijeka and Split.

Where did the idea for this project come from?

The idea developed in parallel. In Italy, the first website about Italian camps was published a few years ago: www.campifascisti.it. The head of the project, Andrea Giuseppini, wanted to find out what subsequently happened to the people from those camps. I was curious about this, too, because I was looking at people categorized as "Yugoslavians" in concentration camps. The group of people who were deported to Germany via Italy were the only ones categorized not just as Serbs or Croats – i.e., an ethnic group – but usually as “Yugoslavians.”

Why were these people deported to Italy?

People from Slovenia, Dalmatia and Montenegro were deported in the course of ethnic cleansing. There were many partisans as well, but their situation needs to be looked at in more detail. There were anti-Italian partisans, but there was also an anti-German and an anti-fascist partisan movement. Their histories are often not linear. For example, anti-Italian partisans were not always opposed to the Germans as well.

Is this well documented?

No. We knew roughly when the deportations from Italy took place from which camps (Renicci, Colfiorito, Molat, Cairo Montenotte) and prisons (Parma, Alessandria, Forlì, Pula, Sulmona and Perugia). We also knew roughly that certain groups were sent to Flossenbürg, for example. But the situation is especially complicated when it comes to people who were not sent to a concentration camp but were deported directly into forced labor. In general, there are hardly any deportation lists, either in Italy or in Germany. We have to search for names and then identify the groups using prisoner numbers. Then you can see where the people came from and when.

Roughly how many people are we talking about?

We assume that there were around 2,000 men from the regions of Slovenia, Dalmatia and Montenegro. Almost no women seem to have been double deportees. I can’t yet say precisely. And that’s just some of them, because Albanians and Greeks were also deported twice, as well as a few British and French. But that’s not part of our project right now.

What did you research at the ITS? Did you come mainly for the biographical documents?

We initially only found information about men who were double deportees. I searched the ITS archive intensively for women. All I found was a very tattered list from Ravensbrück on which two familiar names appeared. Then I also looked for the men in the documents from the concentration camps: change reports, work details and transport lists. Statements from survivors of Buchenwald about the course of their persecution were very helpful. I found these to be the most interesting documents overall. In the correspondence files, too, I found interesting statements, particularly when survivors themselves made inquiries and precisely recounted their own course of persecution. In principle, I have to search name by name. There was no handover from Italy to Germany, so I practically had to start from scratch again here.

It was a complicated search!

Yes, because one problem is that both the Italians and the Germans wrote down people’s names incorrectly. So in many cases, the names were wrong twice over.

How will the findings be presented?

On the website www.topografiaperlastoria.org. First we’ll show the camps in Italy and the camps in Germany as well as the deportation routes and a selection of documents. We’ll supplement this material with biographies and witness statements. We were even able to interview a few people in Slovenia. Then we’ll create a database as well. The site will be available in German, English and Italian.