German Red Cross extends lifetime of World War II tracing service | News | DW | 26.08.2020

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German Red Cross extends lifetime of World War II tracing service

The Red Cross in Germany has said it will extend the operation of its service to find individuals who went missing in the Second World War until 2025. The decision reflects an increased interest from families.

The German Red Cross (DRK) on Wednesday said it would postpone the planned closure of its World War II tracing service for two years.

The service was to have closed in 2023 because of an anticipated drop in demand. However, the German Interior Ministry — which supports the DRK search financially — said interest in the topic appeared to be increasing, particularly among the grandchildren of missing people.

"We greatly welcome this decision," said DRK President Gerda Hasselfeldt at a press conference in Berlin.

"The interest in the fate of their relatives who went missing in the war or through displacement continues unabated. The information from the DRK tracing service provides clarity for many about what happened to their relatives after decades of waiting."

Last year alone, inquiries about people who went missing during the war or in its immediate aftermath through forced displacement totaled 10,091.

Heidi Büttner, a pensioner in Berlin, was one of the people who turned to the service for help in 2019. 

"My heart is lighter now, I can think differently of my father," she told DW. She learned via the service that her father had been taken prisoner by the Soviets in 1945, after which point he vanished without trace. "The internal unease of not knowing what had happened to my father had accompanied me for decades. That word 'missing' haunted my mind."

Heidi Büttner

Heidi Büttner only definitively learned her father's fate last year

The 2018 decision to close the service was apparently taken in agreement with the interior ministry. Some 9,000 inquiries were made in 2017, according to Red Cross figures.

Read more:  World War II: 75 years on, a son finds his father

Some fates remain a mystery

An interior ministry press released then noted that the success rate in clearing up such cases was "declining due to natural causes." "The chances of finding missing persons from the era still alive decreases year on year, and the likelihood of them having been found by other means increases with time," said the release.

Hasselfeldt said that the service has a success rate in the region of 20%, with around 2,000 of the 2019 queries answered by the DRK. Inquiries from abroad are also by no means unheard of, she said, for instance from countries like Poland, Russia and Norway. 

The Red Cross had said in 2018 time that it estimated that the fate of some 1.2 million people would remain a mystery.

Read more:  ICRC, German Red Cross battle odds in search for missing

The tracing service was established shortly after the end of World War II, tasked with searching for more than 20 million people who disappeared during the war. The figure also included soldiers who were killed in action and prisoners of war.

By 1959, the German Red Cross still had more than 2 million cases open. The service has continued to do extraordinary work, such as reuniting two brothers in 2010 after being separated for more than 60 years.

Archive photo from the 1950s of staff at the DRK offices in Munich at work.

The service has been operating for decades, and its shelf life has now been extended for at least two more years amid rising demand

Improved technology and unclassified documents in other countries, especially Russia, have meant that some queries which were once unanswerable can now be solved. Manfred Kropp successfully turned to the DRK for help last year, after his son urged him to try for a second time — years after his first inconclusive attempt. He filed an application online: "It was easy to fill out the application and it was all sorted in no time at all," Kropp says. He soon received a thick envelope from the service, with documents on his father's fate. He had wound up as a POW in Russia and died in captivity.

Audibly moved, Kropp told DW that this sad news actually came as a relief: "Now, I can get some closure." 

Germany's Red Cross also conducts missing persons inquiries for more recent cases on the interior ministry's behalf, receiving some €11 million ($13 million) annually. It is open to anyone with reason to believe their relatives might be in Germany, or that German authorities might have information on their whereabouts.

Read more:  May 8, 1945, was 'zero hour' for Germany in multiple ways

With additional reporting from Nina Werkhäuser.