Archives to Yield Names of Stranded Post-WWII Refugees | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.08.2008
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Archives to Yield Names of Stranded Post-WWII Refugees

Vast and secret archives recording victims of the Nazis have begun yielding up names of the post-Second-World-War refugees who could not or would not go home.

A man going throught the records at the ITS archive

The ITS holds 50 million references to 17.5 million victims of the Nazi regime

The record site, run by the Red Cross at Bad Arolsen in Germany, has already digitized its unparalleled document collection on Holocaust victims and survivors and slave labourers.

Now it is making images for historians of the files on 800,000 people who were dubbed the "non-repatriables" after millions of other people displaced by the Nazis had joyfully returned to their old homes during 1945 and 1946.

Fewer than a third of those staying put in the West as refugees were Jews. More were people from Poland, the Baltic states and Yugoslavia whose homelands had fallen under communist control and who feared instant death if they went home.

So they waited in dreary refugee camps all over Germany, Austria, Italy and England for permission to emigrate. One of the displaced-persons camps was in Cinecitta, the film studios in the Italian capital Rome.

It took until 1952 to find most of them new homes in Israel, the United States, Australia or South America.

A treasure trove

Records from the ITS

The ITS collections will be of great value to historians

Historians will now gain the opportunity to read a treasure trove of so-called care-and-maintenance questionnaires in which refugees describe their wartime experiences and give reasons why they wish to emigrate.

Researchers may also discover a few Nazi collaborators hidden among the victims, concealing war crimes from Allied investigators.

John Demjanjuk, 88, currently awaiting deportation from the United States, was in displaced persons camps till he gained entry to the United States in 1952. He is alleged to have been a murderous SS guard at the Nazis' Treblinka death camp in Ukraine.

Kathrin Flor, a spokeswoman for the International Tracing Service (ITS) archives at Bad Arolsen, emphasized that the vast majority of the non-repatriables were innocent victims, swept up by the Nazis into concentration camps, forced labor or prisoner-of-war stalags.

"Many from Eastern Europe said, 'I will never go back,' because they knew what Stalinism meant for them. Catholic priests for example knew they could not go back to work in the Baltic states," she said.

For families and researchers

The ITS buliding with a Red Cross logo at the entrance

The ITS was only recently opened to researchers and general public

Most of the documents were produced between 1947 and 1952 and are in 350,000 envelopes, usually one per family.

Filed with the questionnaires are photographs, medical files, birth and marriage certificates and letters.

"The documents are of great interest for both the families of these people and for researchers, as they reveal the post-war migration movements and immigration policies of the time," said Alexander Lommel, the ITS head of digitization.

Flor said the analysis is only just starting. The ITS only used the documents to trace missing people and reunite families.

The ITS began the scanning work in July and expects to produce 15 million images of the non-repatriables' records by the end of next year as well as emigration lists totaling around 700,000 images.

The data will be sent to Holocaust museums in Washington and Jerusalem. Most importantly, the images can be easily copied and saved in perpetuity, even if the yellowing paper crumbles away.

A massive project

Records from the ITS

Digitalizing the archive materials will help preserve them for posterity

The ITS had to specially develop 15 computer work stations for the latest project because the paper sizes varied so much, from passport photos to forms on US tabloid-size sheets 432- millimeters-long.

The project follows digitalization of the stock of documents on incarceration into about 18 million images, the ITS name index of 42 million images and a 7-million-image index of the initial displaced persons.

Another 8-million-image collection, on people press-ganged by the Nazis into forced labor, is scheduled for completion this month (August 2008).

The newest project needs a three-person team at each work-station with one taking the fragile documents out and putting them in a device to flatten the paper, another operating the camera and lights and a third in charge of "post-processing" including numbering.

Roughly 70 percent of the documents stored at the ITS have been scanned so far. Bad Arolsen holds 50 million references to 17.5 million victims of the Nazi regime on 26 kilometers (16 miles) of shelving.

No end in sight?

Digitalization of the entire archive is expected to be completed in 2011.

"We've already digitized 3.5 terabytes of data and feel there's still no end in sight," said Michael Hoffmann, head of computing.

Releasing the data from six decades of secrecy took a long campaign led by US Holocaust researchers, who argued that families and historians had to see the data before the last eyewitnesses died.

Finally, last year, the 11 states making up the ITS Commission agreed to relax the secrecy and directed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which manages the ITS on their behalf, to begin making mirror copies of the Bad Arolsen data.

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