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“We leave as advocates of the ITS”

Representatives from eight American Jewish organizations recently spent two days visiting the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, among them William Daroff (United Jewish Communities), Dan Mariaschin (B’nai B’rith), Marc Stern (American Jewish Congress) and Andi Milens (Jewish Council for Public Affairs). They assessed their experience: “As a group, we are not easily impressed, not least in matters regarding the Holocaust,” said Stern. “However, we are surprised and moved.” 

The Americans familiarized themselves with the ITS document holdings and learned about developments since the opening of the archive in November 2007. “We were deeply involved in the discussion on opening the archive,” said Mariaschin. “Now, for the first time, we had the opportunity to see the ITS at work.” It was an extremely informative visit in which the group saw the wide variety of tasks carried out by the institution.

“The longstanding controversy surrounding the International Tracing Service has given way to a positive feeling,” said Daroff. The archive has been opened for research and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has established new leadership. Holocaust survivors were outraged at the slow processing of claims received by the forced labor fund since 2000 and the thousands of letters received by the ITS. “The backlog of requests has since been reduced and response time has been accelerated. With this in mind, we are looking forward to further cooperation with the ITS,” said Daroff.

In the ITS reading room, the visitors were able to experience how helpful the expedited process of digitizing the documents has been. “It was especially exciting to research our own family histories in the digital archive,” reported Mariaschin. Stern praised the fact that “access to the documents when doing family research was fast and effective.”

The representatives of the Jewish organizations also discussed the duties and future of the institution, which is just beginning its transition from a tracing service to a place of historical research, according to Stern. “The scope and value of the documents is astounding, so they must be made available for historical questions. The ITS has enormous potential, provided that the necessary resources are available.” Milens adds that gaps in knowledge could be filled thanks to the accessibility and amount of documents. “I think this is an important aspect.”

The ITS archive will provide further answers to questions on the Holocaust, said Mariaschin. “We also need to deepen our knowledge of archive holdings in eastern European countries, where a lot still has to be done in coming to terms with the Holocaust. In any case, we will advocate for a widened and more meaningful role for the ITS regarding research and educational work.”

The Americans have distanced themselves from ever more frequent American calls to publish all documents on the Internet. “The material is complex and not easily understood,” said Daroff. “It is often difficult to recognize which information is being provided without knowledge of the German language, historical background and the Tracing Service´s operations. Of course, sooner or later these documents will end up on the Internet, but for now, without deeper insight, they are only of limited help.”

Bad Arolsen not only houses documents from concentration camps but also many medical records from the post-war period, Stern pointed out. In addition, the Nazis labeled many victims and their family members “asocial” or “homosexual,” which would leave them vulnerable and at the mercy of the Internet. “Requests received have an 8-week processing deadline, so online research is not currently a priority issue.”

The visitors had high praise for the ITS staff. “They are very professional and profoundly committed to their work. This can´t necessarily be taken for granted, as it is surely not easy to deal with these topics on a daily basis,” explained Daroff. “The staff doesn´t only work at the ITS because it is the second largest employer in the small town, but because they have a considerable amount of concern and compassion for victims´ fates.”

The Americans were also impressed by how committed smaller initiatives are to preserving synagogues, memorial stones and memorial books which remember their former Jewish residents in many parts of Germany. “This is actually in communities where no Jews live today,” said Stern. The group visited the former synagogue in Vöhl as well as the small Jewish museum in Volkmarsen. “I was particularly impressed by how open and helpful everyone was,” explained Milens. “I thought such a visit was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I am happy to know that I can come back any time.”