The International Tracing Service moves with the times

23-12-2008 Interview

The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, contains 50 million documents on Nazi persecution, serving victims and families and making these records available for research. Outgoing head Reto Meister reflects on the Service’s progress over the past two years and on its future.

  Reto Meister 


What is the role of the ICRC at Arolsen today?  

In 1955 the governments* that were running the ITS asked the ICRC to take on the day-to-day management of the institution. So, that's what we've been doing. It is an unusual situation for the ICRC insofar as we are not independent in terms of policy-making and budget. Our funding, 14 million euros in 2008, comes entirely from the German government.

Any political decisions are taken by the International Commission. So as Director, or as the ICRC representative at the head of the ITS, I felt that the managerial challenge was very different from running an ICRC delegation operating in the field.

What were your first impressions of the ITS and what were your priorities for its future management?   

To my mind the institution was performing below its potential, and it certainly had more to offer than it was providing in terms of services. I felt, saw and heard from people what they were expecting of the ITS – what could be made out of this enormous collection of documents, in terms of the people it represented, their recollections and the possibilities for research. These were essentially the criteria around which we focused our priorities.

  © ITS/R. Ehrlich    
The premises of the International Tracing Service 



Our stakeholders – primarily the survivor community – were disappointed, angry and frustrated with the slowness in getting answers to their questions, as well as the content of the answers and the tone of the communications. For me, an absolute priority – a key part of our mission – was to clear the backlog, change the content of the messages being sent out and increase the speed with which they were delivered.

Another goal was to put the ITS on the map. We existed but we were working in isolation, out of touch, with non-existent relations or dialogue with that part of the research community working on humanitarian issues and the legacy of the 20th century.

 How has the ITS evolved during your tenure?  

The structure of the institution, particularly those parts that were not working well, has been reformed. Awareness among staff as to the nature and role of the ITS has increased too. Far from being in an ordinary 9 to 5 job, we exist to serve people. Initially we lacked confidence in ourselves, but gradually we began to realize that people were interested in what we were doing, that we were providing a valuable service through our store of knowledge, collections and historical know-how.


  © ITS/R. Ehrlich    
A few of the 50,000,000 documents in the archives of the ITS 



Essentially, we began to transform an institution that was beginning to become irrelevant into one offering tremendous opportunities to become part of a bigger landscape.

Our governing body, the International Commission, were very supportive about opening up the archives for historical research and providing digital copies of documents for archival repositories in the member States of the Commission. The ITS was at last evolving in the way the Commission wanted it to.

For the families of Holocaust victims, too, there was a renewed sense of optimism. They felt they would be treated gently, humanely, professionally and with close attention by ITS staff, and that they would find the help they needed to obtain information and access to the documents about their lives or the lives of their relatives.

For other stakeholders such as the memorial sites in Germany, faculties of law and specialized faculties focusing on national socialism in Germany and elsewhere, access to the ITS archive brought exciting research possibilities. There was a realization that the collections covered more than the single, dramatic, tragic issue of the Holocaust. So, through us they were able to access files on forced labourers and post-war migration in Europe.

What were the most significant achievements of the ITS during your tenure?  

When I arrived in 2006 there was a backlog of 400,000 cases. By the beginning of 2007 we had about 110,000 cases where people had been waiting for up to seven years. That backlog has now been cleared.

Without question, the quality of our answers has improved. The new ITS website has helped significantly in this regard. It allows people to submit requests online, and services available include the ITS newsletter, information for individual visitors and groups, current ITS publications, tracing requests and links and addresses of other tracing services and memorials.

I would also say the working atmosphere at the ITS itself has improved considerably. We have a clear and recognizable corporate identity. Confidence levels are higher and staff generally feel better about their work.

Crucially, the ongoing process of change is something that is being carried forward by large parts of the organization.


What is the ICRC's future role at Arolsen?  

For the moment the ICRC is fully committed to carrying on this process of change, continuing to transform the ITS into a well-functioning, well-structured organization with qualified and motivated people.

The IC RC is also committed to making sure that the collections in the archives are copied digitally and exported to partner organizations abroad. These include Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (which houses the central database of names and records of millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw.

Gradually the ICRC will withdraw from the management of the ITS, because the nature of its operations and services are ever more distant from the identity and the mission of the ICRC. To this end a strategic study group is now looking at different options, both for the future activities and products of the ITS and the question of its structure, legal personality and financing.


Background information  

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 persecution and their families. The archives it holds on incarceration, forced labour and migration of civilians during the National Socialist period of German history have become an important source for historical research.

The original archives were entrusted to the ITS by member States of the Bonn Treaty of 1955, primarily the USA, the UK and France. Over the years, the ITS has acquired additional data from various sources, enriching the original holdings. Today, the ITS archives encompass more than 30 million documents relating information on 17.5 million people. These documents represent a unique memorial and testimony by telling the individual stories of individuals and groups of victims.

For more information, please see the ITS website:  

  * 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 following countries are members of the Commission: Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Poland, UK, and the United States. The ICRC manages the ITS on behalf of the ICITS.