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The Holocaust and Family Records

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 11 Apr 2013 | comments*Discuss
Holocaust Nazis Records Its Allies

It’s accepted fact that millions of people were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust of World War Two. The vast majority were Jews, but there were also Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and others who didn’t conform to the Aryan stereotype or actively dissented against the state.

Yet the Nazis were also meticulous record keepers. For most of the war they kept lists with the names of those rounded up, transported, imprisoned and murdered, as well as their possessions. Until the final year they never anticipated defeat and so never believed that these records would stand as an indictment.

The History of the Records

At the end of the war the Allies seized all the records that the Nazis had so carefully compiled. They were taken to the town of Bad Arolsen in Germany, put into order and kept locked away.

A decade later, the administration of all these records was passed to the International Tracing Service, an independent bureau that came under the aegis of the Red Cross. This happened as part of the Bonn Agreement, signed that year. Also part of the agreement was the decision that the data collected could not be used to harm those who’d been victims of the Nazis, or their families.

The result was all the data was kept locked away, with the exception of a few – and it really was just a few – instances. Needless to say, this displeased survivors, but even then it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the decision was made in the ITS to allow greater access, and a process of records digitisation was started.

Even then it took almost another decade for full access to be allowed as the German government was slow to agree, and only did so under pressure from the US. Finally, however, in 2008, the ITS Holocaust Archive was opened to the public.

What Does it Contain?

The depth of the records is quite staggering. There are a total of 50 million documents covering everything from the arrest to the killing of victims. Not everything is on official forms. Some lists are on pages torn from notebooks, scraps of paper, virtually everything imaginable. Put together they cover a remarkable 16 miles of shelving and deal with the destruction of more than 17 million human beings.

There are even records covering diseases and infestations of those taken in, things most bureaucracies wouldn’t keep. However, it’s definitely worth noting that not all the people taken by the Nazis found their way into the records. As the war waned some prisoners were killed immediately with no incriminating records kept, and other records will certainly have been disposed of to save murderers.

Who Benefits?

Numerous people benefit from giving full access to these records. There are the survivors themselves, now all elderly, who have the chance to see what happened to their family members. That must rank above all. Then come the researchers into the Holocaust, who have paper trails they can follow to tell their stories. For once, family historians come last.

What those looking to complete a family tree can find in Holocaust records won’t have a happy ending. All it can do is catalogue the ending of a branch, maybe several branches, of a family. It’s not telling anything not already known or strongly suspected. The records just fill in the backgrounds and give dates. That doesn’t make them less important, just filled with sadness.

Accessing Information

The Archive is supervised by 11 different nations, and each of those has a copy of the archive. That doesn’t mean that it’s easier to search the material. It might have been digitised but it can’t be searched online and is in many different languages. All request needs to go directly to the Museum in Germany and will then be dealt with. Priority goes to survivors, who can expect an answer in two to three months.

Requests from others will take longer. The process of digitisation is continuing and in time the information might become searchable online.

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