Sixty years on: tracing victims of the Second World War

06-05-2005 Feature

Every year, the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies receive tens of thousands of tracing requests relating to the Second World War. The work of the ICRC and Red Cross/Red Crescent tracing officers still reunites families torn apart during the six-year conflict. Marcin Monko, of the ICRC's regional delegation in Budapest, sent this report.


Files of missing children from WWII. From 200'000 children only 20 percent were eventually traced and reunited with their families.  
    George Gordon never imagined he would meet his sister, Krystyna, again. In fact, he believed she had been dead for almost 60 years. From the autumn of 1944, Mr. Gordon, born Jerzy Budzynski, had tried in vain discover his family's fate.

During the war, he was a member of the Polish underground resistance army. George fought in the Warsaw Uprising in August to September 1944. After 63 days of fierce fighting, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and sent to Stutthof concentration camp before being transferred to Buchenwald. 

His father and younger brother were killed during the uprising. Resistance comrades told George that his mother and sister must have died too. They saw the family house in Warsaw collapse under a barrage of bombs and told George his relatives could not have survive d. 

On 11 April 1945, the US army liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. George stayed in Germany for five years and worked for the US military. He joined special units that hunted for Nazi fugitives. All this time, he used every means to try to discover what had happened to his family but without success.


International Tracing Service in Arolsen
  The International Tracing Service (ITS) is situated in Arolsen, Germany, and is run by the ICRC. It collects and stores information concerning people deported to Nazi labour and concentration camps. More info on the Service's work on behalf of the former deportees, a task that still continues on a large scale so many years after the end of the Second World War.

He then moved to the United States. He began a new life in his adopted country, worked in a meatpacking factory in Seattle, saw himself promoted and eventually retired as a unit supervisor.

In 2000, advised by a colleague, George placed a tracing request with the American Red Cross, which contacted the Polish Red Cross in Warsaw. The Red Cross Tracing Service in Poland learned that George's resistance colleagues had been wrong.

Krystyna Budzynska was alive and had settled in Wroclaw, in south-west Poland. She and her mother had volunteered to be nurses for the Polish Resistance in August 1944. During the bombing, they had not been at the family home.

After the uprising, they were sent to a labour camp but survived. They searched for Jerzy, but the trail petered out in the Stuthoff camp. Krystyna was told he must have been exterminated there.

'It was the experience of my life', says George about the moment he saw his sister again in Wroclaw in September 2003.'The last time I saw my sister she was fourteen', he adds .

'It's such moments that give us hope and keep us working for the Red Cross', says Elzbieta Rejf, head of the Tracing Service of the Polish Red Cross. In 2004, it opened around 4,300 tracing cases connected to the Second World War.

Last year, thanks to the joint efforts of Elzbieta Rejf, her 39 staff in Warsaw, the ICRC and many national Red Cross societies more than 780 people finally discovered the fate of family members. Only a few dozen – like George Gordon – were fortunate enough to meet their loved ones again after decades of separation. For the majority it was too late – but at least they know.

In 2004, the Tracing Service of the Polish Red Cross received 16,448 letters from Poland and all over the world. The great majority of this correspondence is from people searching for their relatives that went missing during the Second World War. They want to know what happened to their loved ones or where they are laid to rest; they may need official confirmation of a relative's death or simply wish to document their own family history for future generations.

Ms. Rejf joined the institution in 1957, when the Red Cross was overwhelmed with requests from Poles who returned from East and West after the war and the Stalinist era.

She has always worked in tracing, striving to find out more about the war missing. She searches for information on prisoners of war, slave workers and civilians and works on requests from thousands of people that want closure. 

'There are fewer happy endings now', says Ms. Rejf.'People simply want to know what happened to their loved ones'.

In recent years, Ms. Rejf has participated in the Polish-German commission for exhumations and has helped too with the establishment of military cemeteries for German soldiers that died on Polish soil.

The Polish Red Cross also assists German families find relatives'graves.

Geo rge Gordon will always be grateful for the service.

'The Red Cross changed my life'he says. And his case once more revives fading hopes in hundreds of people searching for relatives missing in a conflict that ended sixty years ago.