Towards the opening of the International Tracing Service archives in Arolsen

14-05-2007 Feature

Editorial by Reto Meister, Director of the International Tracing Service Archives

The Second World War seems long over, yet the suffering that was inflicted on millions of civilians and prisoners of war must never be forgotten. More than 60 years after the end of the war, the International Tracing Service (ITS), located in Arolsen, Germany, continues to preserve their memory by documenting the fate of civilian victims of Nazi persecutions and their families. And shortly, the archives it holds on incarceration, forced labour and migration of civilians during the National Socialist period of German history will become an important source for historical research.

The International Commission that governs the ITS will meet on 14 and 15 May in Amsterdam and is expected to take the necessary decisions needed to accelerate the process leading toward the opening of the archives and the transfer of the information preserved therein to the different member states.

The original archives were entrusted to the ITS by member states of the Bonn Treaty of 1955, foremost the USA, the UK and France. Over the years, the ITS has acquired additional data from various sources, so as to enrich the original holdings. The ITS archives encompass today more than 30 million documents relating information on 17.5 million civilians. These documents represent a unique memorial and testimony by telling the individual stories of persons and groups of victims.

Survivors and the families of all victims have the right to know and to access the information that tells their plight. Thus, over the last 25 years, the ITS was in a position to provide answers to enquiries of 2.200.000 individual persons. Their stories tell the horrors of the war and the suffering it caused. They tell in particular about the persecution of the individuals by the National Socialist regime, and about the dreadful methodology in which it was practiced. The ITS has also responded to an additional 950.000 requests in the framework of the Forced Labour Compensation Fund between 2000 and 2006.

While the ITS remains fully committed to its initial task to communicate answers to enquirers, and has recently taken additional steps to ensure that it can do so in a timely and respectful way, it seizes the opportunity provided by last year's decision of the 11 members of the International Commission to open the archives for historical research in Arolsen. Once member states have ratified the amended Bonn Treaty - and I count on them to do so the soonest possible - the documents that are preserved at the ITS will finally become accessible for research aiming at establishing new and confirming already existing insights. The ITS' policy will be to work cooperatively with the associations of survivors, memorial sites, researchers and academic institutes in order to facilitate historical investigation into that black chapter of recent history. In the meantime, the ITS is actively preparing for the opening of its archives.

In order to make research widely possible, the ITS is preparing the digital copies of its documents for their transfer to archival repositories in the member states of the International Commission. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been designated by the US Government, while Israel will integrate the data into the archives of the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Constructive exchange is taking place between the ITS and these institutions on the technical solutions that will enable the integration and use of the electronic copies of the Arolsen archives - we are talking about eight terabyte of data, or the equivalent of 10'000 CD-ROM - for the benefit of all people who take interest in them. The documents of the collection on incarceration have been scanned and indexed. The technical preparations for their export are advancing rapidly and the transfer is set to start this summer. Other member states have also indicated an interest in obtaining such copies.

Survivors, their families and families of those who perished in the Holocaust are welcome to visit the ITS, where they can consult the original files that exist on them in our archives and receive copies thereof. There is no doubt that these documents are of profound importance to many people since they form part of their personal history and that of their family. Researchers will shortly be in a position to do academic work on site and groups can pay educational visits.

As newly appointed director to the ITS I perceive that the main task of this institution is not only to preserve the documentation and to clarify the individual fate of victims. It is also to share the unique collection of information available in its archives and maintain the memory of the past so that these documented horrors be never forgotten nor repeated.

The International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen (ITS) serves victims of Nazi persecutions and their families by documenting their fate through the archives it manages. The ITS preserves these historic records and makes them available for research.

The ITS is governed by the 11-nation International Commission for the International Tracing Service (ICITS)* under the 1955 Bonn Agreements and its 2006 Protocols. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) manages it on behalf of the ICITS.

See also : International Tracing Service website - Bad Arolsen


* Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Poland, UK, United States



Buchenwald, concentration camp after its liberation.
© ICRC / hist-01537-20


Bad Arolsen. International Tracing Agency
© ICRC / S.Hahn / de-e-00015