For more information please contact the Holocaust Survivors and Victim Resource Center at 866.912.4385 (toll-free) or 202.488.6130, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. 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 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 was administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In 2013, administration was transferred to the German Federal Archives.
2. How much information is in the archive?
The archive contains more than 150 million digital images of documentation on millions of 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.
3. 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 launched an even more aggressive approach and 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 German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries announced in a speech at the Museum that Germany had dropped its opposition. Then, working with the U.S. State Department and the German government, the Museum began a complex, diplomatic undertaking until 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 digitization of the records and to upgrade the hardware, software, and finding aids, while simultaneously advancing the political process so that no further time would be 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 before the ratification process officially opening the material was completed. In August 2007, the Museum received the first installment—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 materials as they are digitized.
4. 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 a repository with the appropriate technological, archival, and scholarly expertise to serve survivors and their families as well as historians. The United States designated the Museum to hold the US copy. Israel has designated Yad Vashem, and Poland has designated the Institute of National Remembrance to hold their respective copies.
1. 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.
2. 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 is to submit requests to the Museum online, 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.
1. Will survivors’ requests be giving priority?
Yes. Requests from or on behalf of survivors receive top priority. The trained staff in the Museum’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center have extensive experience researching the ITS archives.
2. 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.