“It’s amazing what a single letter can tell you.”
Christiane Weber, a research associate in the ITS Department of Research and Education, has been working on implementing the e-Guide project since May 2017. To that end, she investigated the historical background of documents from the concentration camps. In the interview she talks about her fascinating research and how to use the ITS e-Guide.
You worked with a team to research the documents and their contexts for the International Tracing Service. That sounds interesting!
Well yes, the work on the e-Guide really was a bit like detective work. In each case, we had to find the exact persons or historical documents that would provide an answer or help us along. It’s hard to imagine what it feels like when, for example, after days, weeks, even months of searching, you suddenly figure out what a G or a Z on a clothing depot card means.
What do they mean? And how does that help the future ITS e-Guide users?
The simple letters G and Z stand for “Gefangenen-” and “Zivilkleidung”—prisoner and civilian clothing. That means that, for instance, a descendant of a concentration camp inmate can decipher what clothing his or her father or grandmother had to wear. On the one hand, this is very personal information. But on the other hand, it also allows you to draw more general conclusions. In our workshops, for instance, the two letters show school pupils how the system of clothing distribution changed over the years. The longer the war dragged on, the scarcer were the striped prisoners’ uniforms we now usually associate with concentration camp inmates. Instead, more and more inmates had to wear the civilian clothing of fellow inmates who had died, or of Jews who had been killed. It’s amazing what a single letter can tell you about a person’s fate—and that’s exactly what the e-Guide descriptions are all about.
Are non-historians also aware of the significance of these supposedly trivial details?
I’m not really sure. In all the ITS departments, we receive inquiries that point to an awareness of, and interest in, the fact that the cards can tell stories about people. And apart from these supposedly trivial details, there are also the larger categories the ITS e-Guide user can actively learn about.
You mean historical contextualization?
Yes. For the first time, we’ve managed to combine knowledge that was long scattered among the minds and desk drawers of many different people. And we welcome every further contribution with open arms because we want to expand the e-Guide. Our decision to use a digital presentation form was very deliberate because it offers countless means of integrating new or changing knowledge.
One last question: Who is the ITS e-Guide for?
That’s easy! The e-Guide is for anyone interested in documents pertaining to the victims of Nazi persecution and what they mean. We made it a point to incorporate as much background knowledge as possible so that everyone can benefit from the ITS e-Guide: people visiting the archive here in Arolsen or at our partner organizations, school pupils who see or work with the ITS documents in class or during visits to concentration camp memorials, and last but not least the relatives of victims who inquire with the ITS about the fates of their family members. No one is excluded, and we want everyone to profit from the new knowledge contained in the ITS e-Guide.