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“The transformation has been successful”

The 80th meeting of the International Commission for the International Tracing Service (IC/ITS) was held in Luxembourg and included presentations and a roundtable discussion on the development of the ITS and its future plans. This was prompted by the upcoming ten-year anniversary of the opening of the archive for research. “It was a good opportunity to pause and take stock, but also to look ahead,” said departing Chairman of the IC, Paul Dostert from Luxembourg.

Taking stock of the past several years, the representatives of the eleven member states of the IC were positive: The transformation from a tracing service to an archive has been successful. The ITS is tackling the challenges of the digital age. “The contrast between then and now is clear,” said Paul Shapiro from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

The IC has also changed and worked hard to overcome the isolation of the ITS. “It was a massive undertaking, but we on the committee well understood the significance of making the documents available,” Shapiro explained. The main goal now is giving online access to the documents. “We have to meet the expectations of users. Improved access will complete the transformation of the ITS.” In Eastern Europe in particular, Shapiro said, there is keen interest in examining and assessing history. “Most of the victims were Eastern European, after all.” And in light of the increase in hate speech, the ITS now has the important role of helping to secure a safer future.

Frédéric Baleine du Laurens from France recalled when the original documents in the ITS archive were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 2013. “This decision imposed a clear obligation on the ITS.” This is most apparent in the plan to build a new, modern archive building in Bad Arolsen. Andrej Misztal from the Polish delegation looked back on the drafting of the Berlin Agreement regarding the mission of the ITS from 2011. “It was an extraordinary challenge to redefine the role of the ITS. The agreement definitely required some creative ambiguity, particularly in light of the ‘international character’ of the organization.” Some tasks have yet to be taken on by the ITS. “But the organization is evolving. It is certainly not static.”

The Israeli delegate Aharon Leshno-Yaar, Chairman of the IC in 2004 and 2014, reported on his personal experiences with the ITS. “Thanks to the documents, I was able to find out more about the fate of my father and his family from Poland. My father himself never talked about the Shoah.” He said the documents inspired him to continue researching and to visit his father’s birthplace. He remarked that it had been difficult to convince the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which directed the ITS until the end of 2012, that it was necessary to open the archive. But this was a decisive step. “Young Israelis are very interested in this topic, and the ITS is an important source.”

ITS Director Floriane Hohenberg stressed the potential of the documents in the ITS archive. “How can we make the documents matter for young people? How can we tell the stories found in the archive’s unique collections so that people learn from it?” Therefore, the ITS would have to change inside out and the IC would have to pose the right questions. “We need modern technology with a focus on online databases and a clear positioning of the ITS.”

The relevance of the documents for shaping the future of Europe was also emphasized by Pieter Jan Wolthers, who has been Chairman of the IC since June, 15, 2017. “We want to make it easier to access the documents, provide added value for users and expand the network of the ITS.”