Gary Mokotoff, Editor
Volume 9, Number 11 | May 12, 2008
A Genealogical Research Trip to Bad Arolsen, Germany
Have you ever wished you could go on the perfect genealogical research trip? One on which:
* you had ready access to the records of the archives
* there was a friendly staff at the archives that was anxious to please
* the staff used their skills to personally assist you in searching the record collection of the facility
* there was an excellent hotel within walking distance and good restaurants in the area
* the camaraderie of being part of a group meant evenings sitting at an outside café, a restaurant, or in the lobby of the hotel discussing successes and failures
* there were trips to local sites of interest
* the weather was perfect; temperature in the 70s (25C) and not a cloud in the sky
That was the experience of 42 genealogists who made a trip to Bad Arolsen, Germany, last week to do five days of research at the International Tracing Service—the first group of any type to be welcomed by ITS. Most of the researchers were veterans of family history research including a number of present and past presidents of Jewish genealogical societies and three past presidents of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (Howard Margol, Sallyann Amdur Sack and me). There was one Holocaust survivor (Peter Nash of Australia) and at least 11 second-generation Holocaust survivors.
Every comment made to me by those who attended was that it was a positive experience. Valery Bazarov, Director of the Location and Family History Service of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in New York, stated it was the most fantastic research trip he has ever made. The most negative comment was from another researcher who said he found little, but the trip was definitely worthwhile because he now knew there was little documentation of the fate of individual members of his family.
The International Tracing Service (ITS) was dubbed “Hitler’s Secret Archives” by the popular American news documentary show 60 Minutes. ITS contains information about more than 17 million people persecuted by the Nazis before and during World War II. More than 50 million index cards place an individual in a certain place at a certain time. For more than 60 years the ITS was off limits to the public. Inquiries took as long as three years to process. In 2006, ITS had a backlog of 140,000 inquiries; today the number is less than 13,000 and people can expect turnaround time in about 8 weeks…and the turnaround is still improving. Staff members told a number of researchers that the work environment is more rewarding now. Previously, they were forced by the ITS administration to go through bureaucratic hoops that slowed down the process. Now they feel they are doing useful work.
For the trip, ITS officials installed 20 terminals in a number of rooms of their facility. Twenty of their English-speaking staff members were assigned to the terminals to teach researchers how to use the Central Names Index and to aid in accessing the records that were the basis for the index. Additional staff members were used as translators and to pull files from their record collection. Senior officials, including Reto Meister, director of ITS, checked in from time to time to confirm things were going as planned. All told, no less than 50 staff members participated in providing support to the researchers.
The process was to work with an ITS staff member at a terminal using the Central Names Index (CNI) to locate information about family members. Copies of the actual documents could then be requested. Many of the CNI cards led to one of the 2.8 million T/D files that provided greater information about the individual. T/D (Trace Documentation) files are case files. When an inquiry was made in the past 60 years about a person, all material about the individual was placed in a T/D folder. These files were located about 5 km (3 miles) from the main ITS facilities and were retrieved in a half day or less. Results of research were made available in paper form when requested. Researchers could also save images in a file that was transferred onto a CD and given to the researcher on the last day.
The ITS staff benefitted from our presence. They learned additional search techniques veteran genealogists have acquired in family history research. For example, the importance of searching under both names if a person had a double given name.
If you want to make a personal trip to ITS, they recommend that you contact them at least one month in advance. It will also speed up the research process if you give them the information you are researching. A number of attendees indicated they were planning to go back to their societies and recommend group trips to Bad Arolsen.
Is Bad Arolsen a better place to do Holocaust research than Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington? For the next few years—unquestionably. Not all the records will be digitized until 2010, and the very important T/D files will not be available until late 2009.
Our journal AVOTAYNU will provide extensive coverage of the trip to Bad Arolsen in its Summer issue. We expect many of the persons who went on the trip to provide their experiences including
* doing research at ITS
* what exists and what does not exist at ITS
* the advantages of onsite research at ITS rather than e-mail inquiries or using the facilities in Israel or the U.S.
* how to use the Central Names Index and other aspects of the ITS environment
Information about AVOTAYNU can be found at http://www.avotaynu.com/journal.htm
Wearing the Star
Rose Lehrer Cohen of Jerusalem, a participant on the trip, suggested some weeks ago that we should celebrate Israel Independence day in some manner, because it would occur on the Thursday we were in Germany. I decided to purchase buttons showing the Israeli flag to wear that day. When the buttons arrived I stared at them. They reminded me that we were going to a country that once forced our relatives to wear yellow Jewish stars, and ironically now we were going to that country willingly wearing blue Jewish stars.
The Holocaust Story to End All Holocaust Stories
I tell people that when you hear the Holocaust story to end all Holocaust stories, the next day you hear another story that you declare is certainly the Holocaust story to end all Holocaust stories.
AVOTAYNU Editor Sallyann Sack has a cousin who survived Buchenwald at the age of nine. He was an orphan adopted by Sallyann’s aunt and uncle when he was brought to the United States in the late 1940s. While in Bad Arolsen, she found there was documentation of her cousin that included the names of his parents. She continued her research looking for information about the boy’s parents and was stunned to find documentation that showed his mother had survived the war and came to the U.S. in 1949, the same year as the boy, but through the years neither had known the other had survived. There was evidence at ITS that a search was made by a lawyer for the boy to locate his family but no one was found. How was this possible? The mother had a double given name (such as Sarah Rivka) and Sallyann, using her skills as a family historian, was able to search for her using both given names and variants. Clearly, this was not done by ITS personnel many years ago when a search was requested.
Sallyann commented that had the ITS records been in the public domain 10–20 years ago rather than a secret archives, she would have searched the records for her cousin and possibly reunited the two. The woman would be in her mid-90s today. By the time she left Germany, Sallyann had determined the woman remarried and had children. She believes she has located one of the woman’s sons. The complete story will appear in the Summer issue of AVOTAYNU.
Future Access to ITS Records
ITS policy is made by an 11-country Commission, not by ITS or the International Committee of the Red Cross who manages the operation. It was the Commission that ruled there will be no Internet access to the ITS collection, and each of the eleven countries—and only the eleven countries—can have one copy of the records. These two restrictions must come to an end as quickly as possible. First, each country of Eastern Europe must get copies of the records. This is an archives of persons persecuted by the Nazis, and citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia and other countries should have access to the files. Regarding Holocaust victims and survivors, the two countries that are absent from the list that clearly would make good use of the records are Australia and Canada. Furthermore, in large countries such as the United States, multiple copies should exist at strategic geographic locations. It is unreasonable to expect citizens of countries to travel thousands of miles to a single location. Research by letter or e-mail works often, but there is a expression in genealogy that “no one can do your research as well as you can.” Witness the story of Sallyann Sack’s cousin described above.
Germans Then and Now
My wife Ruth came along on the trip. After a number of days she commented to me how friendly the Germans of Bad Arolsen were. How, when you walk down the street, almost all greeted you with a “Guten tag.” She told me that it was hard to believe that the parents and grandparents of these lovely, friendly people perpetrated one of the greatest atrocities of Western civilization.
I, too, had been coming to the same conclusion in the past few years. Before I was involved in genealogy, the Holocaust was an event that happened to Jews, but other Jews. My family was safe in the United States. My ancestors came to the U.S. in the great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century. When I started documenting the Mokotow family history and discovered that more than 300 members of the Mokotow family were murdered in the Holocaust—I know of less than 15 survivors—a great resentment built up against the German people. I also started to read books about the Holocaust to gain a better understanding of what happened. It caused me to stop saying that the “Nazis killed the Jews.” Instead I started saying the “Germans murdered the Jews.”
When you refer to the perpetrators of the Holocaust as the “Nazis” you are implying that the atrocities were done by people who are no longer around. When you use the term “Germans” or more appropriately “Germans and their collaborators,” you recognize that the Holocaust was not the act of a group of people that no longer exist, but was the act of everyday people that allowed it to happen. Nazis did not drive the trains to Auschwitz. Nazis did not manufacture the ovens. Nazis did not occupy the homes of Jews who were rounded up and deported to their death. It was everyday people.
As I meet the Germans of today and enjoy having them as my friends, it is becoming more difficult to say “Germans murdered the Jews.” I will never return to using the term “Nazi.” I will more likely start referring to the “perpetrators” as a neutral term.
Germans, more than any other group, are publicly recognizing their participation in the Holocaust. I do not mean the German government, who some would argue is doing it for good political reasons. I am referring to individual Germans who are memorializing their Jewish countrymen who were murdered during a time period I am sure they would prefer to forget. German citizens, on their own, are restoring synagogues and publishing memorial and history books of the Jewish presence in Germany. Typical are those who are restoring the synagogue in the town of Voehl which the researchers visited last week although the town has no Jewish residents. The Jewish cemetery in town is well kept. The project of these individual Germans has a web site at http://www.synagoge-voehl.de/Die_Synagoge/rechts_engl.htm
Arthur Obermayer, an American of German-Jewish heritage, has established an award for Germans “who have made extraordinary contributions to preserve and record the Jewish history, culture and remains of their local communities.” Since 2000, 40 persons have been given the award. This past year I assisted in nominating two women who published an excellent book about the Jews of Muenster. They did not get the award and when I queried one of the judges, I was told they received so many nominations—more than 30—it was difficult to choose the winners. Information about the Obermayer award can be found at http://www.obermayer.us/award/
Bad Arolsen Trip: Useful Web Sites
Associated Press account of the trip. More than 1,100 newspapers carried the story.
ITS news release about the trip
Some photos of the trip
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