International Tracing Service Archive
For regularly updated information on the opening of the ITS, visit the Museum’s Web page www.ushmm.org/its.
Frequently Asked Questions
(Updated as of October 1, 2008)
For more information please contact the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors at 866.912.4385 (toll-free) or 202.488.6130, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is the International Tracing Service?
The International Tracing Service archive (ITS) is located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and until November 2007, when the Museum-led effort to open it succeeded, it was the largest closed Holocaust archive in the world. The archive was established by the Allied powers after World War II to help reunite families separated during the war and to trace missing family members. The Allies placed in the ITS millions of pages of documentation that they captured during the war. Since then, the archive has continued to grow as new records, both originals and copies, have been deposited there.
The archive is overseen by an 11-nation International Commission comprised of Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The archive is administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
How much information is in the archive?
The archive contains more than 150 million digital images of documentation on approximately 17.5 million victims of Nazism—people arrested, deported, killed, put to forced labor and slave labor, or displaced from their homes and unable to return at the end of the war. Sixteen linear miles of shelving are required to hold all the files.
How was the archive opened?
For decades survivors expressed frustration with the unresponsiveness of ITS to inquiries about the fates of their loved ones. At one point, there was a backlog of more than 425,000 unfulfilled requests for information from survivors. Many survivors appealed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to help them obtain this information.
The Museum pressed for the opening of the archive for many years, but faced strong resistance from the governments of the International Commission, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), and the ITS.
After strongly pressuring the various entities, the Museum believed it had a commitment from the ITS. But in 2005, when the ITS failed to fulfill its promise to open the archive, the Museum decided that the situation was intolerable and launched an even more aggressive approach. In order to facilitate access by survivors and others and to ensure permanent accessibility, the Museum pushed to have copies of the archive made available to each of the member countries of the International Tracing Service Commission.
The ICRC and a number of countries on the 11-nation International Commission insisted that the 1955 agreement needed to be amended before the archive could be made public. Following an intense effort by the Museum, the initial breakthrough came in 2006 when Germany dropped its opposition to opening the archive in a speech delivered by German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries at the Museum. Then, working with the U.S. State Department and the German government, the Museum began pressing the case with the other countries, in a complex diplomatic undertaking that took an extraordinary amount of time as each country ratified the agreement that finally opened the archive.
While countries were engaged in the time-consuming process of ratification, the Museum successfully advocated a two-track process—working to accelerate the digitizing and scanning of the records, upgrading hardware, software, and finding aids, while simultaneously advancing the political process so that no further precious time was lost.
At its May 2007 meeting in Amsterdam, the International Commission approved the Museum’s proposal to permit advance distribution of the material, as it is digitized, to the designated repository institutions prior to the completion of the agreement ratification process officially opening the material. In August 2007, the Museum received the first installment of materials—approximately 18 million digital images of arrest, camp, prison, ghetto and transport records. The Central Name Index (the primary finding aid for the collection) arrived in November. This allowed the Museum to begin preparations to make the material accessible while waiting for the remaining countries to ratify the agreement.
Finally, in November 2007, all 11 nations ratified the agreement to open the archive, and the Museum continues to receive material as it is digitized.
Which institutions will receive a copy of the archive?
The International Commission decided that each of the 11 nations could receive a single copy of the archive and designate an archival repository with the appropriate technological, archival and scholarly expertise to serve survivors and their families as well as historians. The United States has designated the Museum to hold the U.S. copy. Israel has designated Yad Vashem, and Poland has designated the Institute of National Remembrance to hold their respective copies.
ITS AND THE UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Why is the Museum housing the United States' copy of the archive?
The International Commission decided that each of its 11 member nations would designate one repository with the technological, archival, and historical expertise to receive a copy of the material and serve survivors and their families as well as historians. The Museum, America’s national memorial to the Holocaust, will hold the U.S. copy and Yad Vashem will hold Israel's. The Institute of National Remembrance will hold Poland’s.
The Museum already maintains an archive of approximately 46 million pages of documentation in many languages and regularly responds to thousands of requests every year for information from survivors, scholars and the public.
When will the Museum receive the records?
All the records need to be digitized before they can be transferred. The Museum is receiving them in a series of installments as this process is completed.
The first installment of digitized raw data, which includes approximately 18 million images of material in the section on camps, transport, ghettos, and arrest records, was transferred to the Museum in August 2007. In November, the Museum received copies of the almost 40 million index cards (containing the 17.5 million names) in the Central Name Index. The amount of data in the first installment alone is equivalent to approximately 8,000 CD-ROMs.
The slave labor records, comprising 7 million images, arrived in August 2008.
The Museum expects to receive the displaced persons records throughout 2009 and 2010 as they are digitized.
ITS AND ACCESSIBILITY
Why is the Museum not using the computer software in place at the ITS?
The ITS system was never intended to be used by anyone other than the archivists working at ITS, where the millions of pages of paper documents were consulted directly during a search. Using this software resulted in a backlog at one point of hundreds of thousands of unanswered requests at the ITS.
Technical experts from nine countries examined the system and unanimously agreed that exporting the ITS software system to the other countries housing the archive would result in further delays in accessing the information.
Are the records goings to be on the Internet?
Regrettably, the collection was neither organized nor digitized to be directly searchable online. Therefore, the Museum’s top priority is to develop software and a database that will efficiently search the records so we can quickly respond to survivor requests for information.
Only a small fraction of the records are machine readable. In order to be searched by Google or Yahoo! search engines, all of the data must be machine readable.
Searching the material is an arduous task in any event. The ITS records are in some 25 different languages and contain millions of names, many with multiple spellings. Many of the records are entirely handwritten. In cases where forms were used, the forms are written in German and the entries are often handwritten in another language.
The best way to ensure that survivors receive accurate information quickly and easily will be by submitting requests to the Museum by e-mail, regular mail, or fax, and trained Museum staff will assist with the research. The Museum will provide copies of all relevant original documents to survivors who wish to receive them via e-mail or regular mail.
PROVIDING INFORMATION TO SURVIVORS
Will survivors’ requests be giving priority?
Yes. Requests from or on behalf of survivors will receive priority over all other inquiries. The Museum’s trained staff in our Survivors Registry has extensive experience in helping survivors do research. They have received weeks of training at the ITS facility in Bad Arolsen so that they will be able respond to inquiries in a timely manner.
How long will it take the Museum to provide an answer?
Survivors can expect to receive an answer to their inquiry within 8-12 weeks.