Major Holocaust Document Collection Digitized


The International Tracing Service (ITS), the largest but least known collection of Holocaust-era documents, has begun the process of digitizing some 30 -million items, making them accessible to researchers, survivors and their families throughout the world. Those familiar with the collection say that the move is unlikely to lead to major breakthroughs, but will make research far easier and advance the cause, using data to irrefutably prove the facts and scale of Nazi genocide.

The ITS collection, housed in Bad Arolsen, in Germany’s Hesse region, holds documents relating to the movements of an estimated 17.5 million individuals displaced during and immediately after the Second World War.

Kathrin Flor, a spokesperson for ITS, told Hamodia that the project is an ongoing one, and that making the entire collection available for searches “will be carried out step by step and certainly take several years.”

“Every search engine saves time and effort,” Holocaust historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum told Hamodia. “Ninety-nine percent of people will get drowned in detail, but if you know what you are looking for, this will make it much easier to find it. Let the discoverers have at it, and see what conclusions we can come to.”

Papers relating to deportations to concentration, death, and labor camps, as well as ghettoization, trace the movements of Jews and others who were victims of the Nazi regime. The vast majority of documents come from Nazi record keepers themselves. In an interview with Reuters in 2013, Mrs. Flor said that only natural causes of death such as heart failure and pneumonia were listed for those who perished in death camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.

Sensing the scale of the refugee crisis created by the war, the collection of files was initiated in 1943 by the British Red Cross, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and other organizations that worked in tangent with allied forces. Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, what would become known as ITS began to seize and organize the massive trove of records kept by Nazi Germany relating to displaced persons, with the hopes that the information could be used by survivors to locate family members.

However, its contents were kept under tight control, administered for over half a century by the International Red Cross. Those searching for information relating to missing persons, and later restitution claims, submitted requests to ITS, but the documents were off limits even to researchers.

Amidst public pressure from several Jewish organizations, in 2007 the collection was transferred to the auspices of an 11 nation commission and opened to the public.

Mrs. Flor said that the move to make the files available was “a political decision made by the International Commission which governs the work of the ITS.”

By 2007, most documents had been scanned and stored in computer files, but were not digitized and were very difficult to search.

“The information was available to researchers for some time, but it was hit or miss and miserable to look for anything,” said Dr. Berenbaum.

Dr. Berenbaum said that while most general information has been available to the public through Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Museum for decades, ITS’ holdings can fill in far more detail.

“A survivor [who did research through ITS] saw that his name was crossed off of one bus transport and then put on another, showing that he was put on a transport only with other 10 to 12 year olds. What happened? He saw that the Nazis needed workers with small hands to work in a rocket factory,” he said.

Over 70 years since the conclusion of World War Two, ITS says that the number of requests it receives remains high, 15,635 in 2016, from a combination of researchers and family of survivors.

“Most of the family members are interested in receiving documents and getting specific information with dates and places of persecution,” said Mrs. Flor. “The requests are mainly from the second and third generations. Since survivors were not always able to speak about the time of persecution, any information is highly valued. Some survivors from Poland still need documents to apply for the so-called Ghetto-Rente (pension) in Germany. And we still get a few requests to search for family members, for example half-sisters and brothers from the time of DP camps or forced labor in Germany.”

Last week, ITS announced that it had completed efforts to digitize the bulk of its collection and made documents searchable through its website. The move not only makes searches far easier, but saves researchers a trip to Germany, or at least lets them do far more preparation in advance.

Abraham Biderman, co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, felt that the digitization would have little effect on property claims from survivors and their families.

“The Claims Conference has had access to ITS for years and we were able to use it to the degree that we needed to confirm the eligibility of claimants. It doesn’t provide any new insight for people in the field, but it will make things easier,” he told Hamodia.

Mr. Biderman said that the added accessibility to information might lead to a small increase in individuals submitting new claims, but mostly saw the development’s significance to the historical record.

“Bizarre as it seems, we know that the Germans were meticulous record keepers, so there’s paper work on millions of people being sent to ghettos and camps. Expediting that information makes it all the easier to deny the deniers and debunk lies that question if the Holocaust happened or debate the numbers.”

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