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On the Loss of Identity

A report broadcast on the American TV network CBS compelled Canadian author Deborah Schnitzer to visit the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen. She wanted to learn how the archive works firsthand and see documents on her husband´s family.  “I´m interested in how the archive has changed since it opened its doors for research and how the documentation is structured,” said Schnitzer. “The kinds of records will reveal something about how identities were robbed and destroyed.”

As a poet who contributed to the anthology, “Children of the Shoah: Holocaust Literature and Education” and professor at the University of Winnipeg, Schnitzer has for years been focused on communicating the Holocaust to the younger generation.  “We can´t only list facts but have to illustrate the background,” said Schnitzer. “Classes in school are often young people´s first contact with this difficult topic, so how the communication takes place, whether it be through art and other innovative techniques, plays an important role.” 

As conclusive proof of the events, the documents are also essential for educational work, said Schnitzer. “What does an individual name on a transport list mean? What history is behind it? And how does this topic tie in with the human rights debate today?”

In her own family she always felt the silence about the terrible events of the Holocaust to be a burden, according to Schnitzer. “There are usually only fragments of knowledge and a few memories floating around.  Looking back is too painful, so it is important to ask questions and see the documents.” Her husband is the only male descendant of a Jewish family from Poland, who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz.  His father emigrated to Canada. The author is sure: “Every generation has to find its own way to deal with the past and with memory.”

Above all, the aspect of one´s own identity is a decisive question for Schnitzer when dealing with documents from the National Socialist era: victims were robbed of their homelands, their homes, their names and often their very lives.  “How are a child´s experiences and dreams communicated when that child was fighting for his or her life in a concentration camp? What do the documents reveal and what language do they use?”  Schnitzer intends to answer these questions based on records in the ITS´s archive.  At the same time she plans to incorporate her husband´s family documents into her newest novel.  

In addition to Bad Arolsen, Schnitzer, her friend Susan Woods and cousin Barbara Kessler also visited Munich, the Dachau Memorial, Nuremberg, Berlin and Prague in the Czech Republic in order to trace European Jews murdered by the Nazis. “This was my first time in Germany.  It was a remarkable experience,” said Schnitzer.