Working Against Time
Only in the rarest of cases do actual survivors of Nazi persecution inquire with the Arolsen Archives about documents pertaining to their past. Most inquiries come to us from the descendants—the victims’ children, grandchildren, often even their great-grandchildren. What are they looking for? How do they react to new information about their relative’s fate? And why is it so important to process their inquiries as quickly as possible? A conversation with Anna Meier-Osinski, the head of the tracing department, about inquiries from the generations that came after.
Why are the descendants of the persecution victims still interested in their relatives’ fates? Hasn’t every story already long been told?
No, and already the documents in our archive are clear evidence of that fact. We have information on more than 17.5 million individuals. To date, we’ve received inquiries about 3 million of them. So there are still a lot of unanswered questions, even taking into account that often entire families were murdered and there’s accordingly no one to search for them. In 2019 we received 16,000 inquiries from members of the later generations. Especially in Eastern Europe and Russia, there are still millions of families who don’t know what happened to their relatives. Nearly every family in Poland was subjected to Nazi persecution. Children and grandchildren are now looking for answers to questions their parents or grandparents never had a chance to ask.
How do people looking for information find their way to the Arolsen Archives?
Many of the survivors never talked to their families about their fates. But they did often try to obtain confirmation of imprisonment so they could receive compensation. The Arolsen Archives and its predecessor institutions issued documents of that kind from 1945 onward. When the children or grandchildren find something like that in the person’s belongings after his or her death, they inquire with us and want to know what it’s all about. And many people also start doing research on their relatives’ fates on their own—in cases where maybe all they know is the name and that the person was deported by the Nazis. Institutions all over the world refer these people to us. Or people come across the Arolsen Archives in the course of their own internet research. Major genealogy platforms such as Ancestry and My Heritage also make reference to us.
What can the inquirers learn about their relatives here?
They’re often amazed at the wealth of information we keep here. Sometimes we can even reconstruct the entire history of a person’s persecution. Often, though, it’s just certain stages of that history. But even that is important if you know very little. The descendants often learn to see their relatives in a whole new way. Sometimes families find the certainty they’ve been looking for for decades. In 2019 we had an especially tragic case of a Polish family who suspected for a long time that their deported grandfather had started a new life for himself in Germany. His wife and son took those doubts with them to their graves. It was the granddaughter who finally learned from us that the man had been murdered in a horrible Nazi massacre. She was able to visit his gravesite in Saxony-Anhalt. That story shows to what extent we’re working against time when we process these inquiries. A few years earlier, we could have reached his wife and son.
Are all of the families looking for documents, or do some of them also have other questions?
There are also those that are looking for a family member—a half-sibling or cousin, for example, or a more distant relative. Hundreds of thousands of families were torn apart by the Nazi crimes. Sometimes it takes until now for families to learn that someone among them survived. We also help in these cases. And we can assist in the search for gravesites, for example of forced laborers or concentration camp inmates.
What happens after a case is clarified?
For many of the inquirers, our documentation is just the first step. They continue their research based on the new leads they’ve gotten from us. Families also come to Bad Arolsen to view the original documents, because often these documents are the last trace of their relatives. People take long journeys upon themselves for this purpose, for example from the USA or Australia. Often they also visit memorials that have been established on the sites of former concentration camps. And they bring their children with them. The whole family talks about the fate the relative suffered under the Nazis, and so the story gets passed on to the younger generation. In many cases these are families that long thought they weren’t affected by the events or didn’t believe they could ever find anything out.
How do the many inquiries from the later generations change the work of the Arolsen Archives? How do these inquiries differ from those that used to come from the victims themselves?
In the post-war period, the survivors were trying to get compensation. To them it was important to obtain confirmation of their imprisonment. You didn’t have to explain to those people what a concentration camp was or what forced labor meant, because they knew from personal experience. With their descendants, the situation varies. These days, the majority of the inquiries come from Poland, Russia, the USA, Australia, France, and Israel. The way people are socialized in these countries is very different, and people have different levels of knowledge about how the Second World War played out in Europe. In Australia, for example, there’s a lot of interest in genealogy, but very little knowledge about that period in history. And very few people know about the concentration camps in any detail.
So does that mean we have to enlighten people more?
Yes, exactly. The document is “merely” the key to the past the inquirers want to learn about. The document tells a person that his or her grandfather was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp from 1942 to 1944. But the grandchildren want to know what that meant in practice. What was his everyday life in the camp like, what kind of labor did he have to perform, what did they give him to eat? The person’s experience and fate only become clear through context information, which we now supply along with the document copies. With the aid of new digital offers such as our eGuide, people can decipher the documents themselves. Over the coming years we plan to greatly expand these kinds of possibilities.
Anna Meier-Osinski was the head of the tracing department until early 2020. Since February 2020 she has been the outreach manager for Eastern and Central Europe (Poland) [JR1] and is working to establish a branch of the Arolsen Archives in Warsaw.