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Historian’s Workshop on Death Marches

For the first time ever, documents on the subject of death marches from concentration camps will be examined in more detail by researchers visiting the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen. The files also include previously unreleased cartographical material. ITS is holding the workshop for historians with 13 participants from five countries from 4–7 October 2010. “We hope that this will open up new research perspectives,” said Dr Susanne Urban, head of the research department at ITS. “The subject of death marches has only just begun to gain a foothold in recent years. ITS wants to take part in the discussion.”

After the end of WWII, the International Tracing Service’s predecessor institutions made intensive efforts to reconstruct the course of the death marches and clarify the fates of those affected. Representatives of German communities and survivors were interviewed. The documents resulting from these endeavours are now being reviewed and analysed during the workshop. “The fates of thousands of people still remain unresolved,” said the historian Dr Katrin Greiser, who is participating in the workshop on behalf of the Buchenwald memorial site. “I’m sure the inventory at ITS will bring our research questions forward. In terms of structure, we’re familiar with the documents to some extent, but they have never been fully evaluated.”

According to Urban, previously undiscovered findings could also turn up here. “Some of the death march maps the tracing service created included information on specific locations, the number of people involved and grave sites – the full details of which are probably unknown to researchers, and to memorial sites in particular.” Historian and archivist Albert Knoll of the Dachau Memorial could clear the fate of a prisoner that had so far been unresolved with the help of a map and further ITS documents. “These are important results for us that we will integrate in our planned death book of the concentration camp Dachau”, explained Knoll.

The historian’s workshop this week marks the start of a more intensive analysis of the documents. Specific research projects are foreseen, as well as a conference next year with additional scholars and a future publication. By making this valuable inventory accessible and opening it up for discussion, ITS also wants to make a name for itself in the research community, said Urban. “ITS sees itself as a place of academic and pedagogic debate on National Socialism, the Holocaust and forced labour.”

In cooperation with Yad Vashem, there are also plans to develop teaching units on the subject of death marches. “While we have a number of pedagogical units in German available, we do not yet have one dedicated to the death marches. The documents at ITS hold important starting points for examining the issue of individual fates but also the aspect of the actions taken by onlookers and perpetrators,” explained Deborah Hartman of the International School for Holocaust Studies Yad Vashem.

What were referred to as “evacuations” of the concentration camps at the end of WWII are generally called death marches today. The term was coined by survivors. In 1944, the SS began clearing camps close to the front, forcing most concentration camp prisoners to embark on week-long marches. Already weakened by their imprisonment, many of them froze, died of starvation or collapsed. Those unable to march further were shot by SS guards.