The International Tracing Service and the ICRC

 

Photos left behind by some of the millions who did not survive the ravages of the Third Reich
© ICRC

The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, serves the victims of Nazi persecution and their families by documenting their fate through the archives it manages. With a workforce of about 300 employees, the ITS preserves the historical records and makes them available for research. If lined up back-to-back the archives amount to 26 km of files containing information on the fate of about 17.5 million people.

The ITS provides information about:

  • Germans and non-Germans who were detained in Nazi concentration or work camps or other detention sites from 1933 to 1945.
  • Victims of the Holocaust.
  • Non-Germans deployed as forced labourers on the territory of the Third Reich during World War II.
  • Displaced persons who, after World War II, were under the care of international relief organisations (UNRRA, IRO).
  • Children (i.e. under 18 years of age at the end of World War II) of persons belonging to the above-mentioned groups and displaced or separated from their parents as a result of the war.

The archives do not hold documents on German civilians who fled, or were dispelled, from territories once occupied by German forces.

In 1955 the ICRC was entrusted with the management of the ITS by its governing body, the International Commission for the ITS. Their decision was motivated by the neutral and independent character of the ICRC and its expertise in tracing. Since then the ICRC has been managing the ITS by appointing an ICRC delegate to the position of ITS director. Prior to 1955 the ITS, created before the end of WW II under a British initiative, was initially managed by the Allied Expeditionary Forces and later on by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organisation, the International Refugees Organisation and the Allied High Commission for Germany.

For decades, the ITS had the constrained mandate of tracing civilians who fell victim to Nazi persecution and for clarifying their fate. It also issued certificates for pension and compensation payments and supported the work of legal authorities. It was in 2007 when the 11-member International Commission for the ITS had come to acknowledge the need to make these important archives also available to historic research by taking the land-mark decision of opening the archives to the public.

In the coming years it will no longer be possible to obtain direct testimonies from survivors of Nazi persecution. Therefore the unique documents preserved in Bad Arolsen will play a crucial role in testifying of this dark chapter of human history. At the same time the ITS will carry on with its traditional work of providing information to survivors and their families for as long as it continues to receive requests.

Building on the work of its Strategic Study Group, which was tasked with working on the future mandate and organizational structure of the ITS, the International Commission endorsed the text of the first of two new Agreements on the International Tracing Service to replace the existing two Bonn Treaties of 1955 and their amendments of 2006. This became necessary after the ICRC announced in 2008 its wish to withdraw from the management and administration of the ITS. The new Agreement will formally introduce the additional new tasks of the ITS including research, remembrance, commemoration and education thereby enlarging the already existing primary mandate of tracing.

With the expected withdrawal of the ICRC by the end of 2012, the International Commission has identified the German Federal Archives as the new Institutional Partner that will play a major role in managing the ITS with its enlarged mandate. During the coming year the Strategic Study Group will continue its work and draft a second agreement specifying the exact terms under which the ITS will work together with the German Federal Archives.

Recent ITS milestones: 

  • May 2006: International Commission decides to open the archives to the public for research and agrees on the Amendments to the Bonn Agreements of 1955, that represent the legal basis for the ITS
  • August 2007:first digital copies of incarceration documents passed to archival repositories in member states of the International Commission. ITS website launched.
  • November 2007: Amendments to the Bonn Agreement of 1955 ratified. Opening of the archive for research. Relaunch of the ITS archive.
  • March 2008: Technical Meeting of the International Commission at Bad Arolsen; digital copies of registration cards relating to Displaced Persons handed over to archival repositories in member States.
  • 30 April 2008: A ceremony marks the opening of the ITS archive in Bad Arolsen.
  • May 2008: The International Commission opens the discussion on the future of the institution at its annual meeting in Warsaw.
  • June 2008: Joint workshop with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, involving 15 historians from all over the globe.
  • August 2008: Digital copies of documents on forced labour are handed over to archival repositories.
  • November 2008: 1,300 visitors from 24 countries have visited the ITS since it opened to the public, including 330 researchers, 100 journalists and 290 victims of Nazi persecution and members of their families. A total of 11,300 enquires from 77 countries reached ITS, of which around a quarter (2,920 enquiries) came from scholars and journalists.
  • December 2008: New archivist launches project to improve indexing of ITS documents.
  • May 2009: The International Commission continues the discussions on the future mandate and organisational structure of the ITS
  • May 2010: The International Commission endorses the text of the first of two new agreements to replace the existing 1955 Bonn Agreement, its Annex and amendments defining the new mandate and organizational structure of the ITS. It will continue discussions on a second agreement specifying the terms under which the ITS will work together with the German Federal Archives, which will play the role of an institutional partner after the withdrawal of the ICRC expected by the end of 2012. 
  • May 2011: In the course of the Annual Meeting of the International Commission (IC) for the ITS in Brussels the ICRC officially announces the date for its withdrawal from the management of the ITS for the 31 December 2012. At the same meeting the IC-ITS continued the discussions on the second agreement regulating the partnership between the ITS and the German Federal Archives in order have a new management structure in place by the time the ICRC will withdraw from the ITS.