International Tracing Service
The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is an internationally governed centre for documentation, information and research on Nazi persecution, forced labour and the Holocaust. The archive contains about 30 million documents from concentration camps, details of forced labour, and files on displaced persons. ITS preserves the original documents and clarifies the fate of those persecuted by the Nazis. Since November 2007, the archives are accessible for researchers.
ITS was founded as an organization dedicated to finding missing persons, typically lost to family and friends as a result of war, persecution or forced labour during World War II. The service operates under the legal authority of the Berlin Agreements from December 2011 and is funded by the government of Germany. The German Federal Archives are the institutional partner for the ITS since January 2013.
In 1943, the international section of the British Red Cross was asked by the Headquarters of the Allied Forces to set up a registration and tracing service for missing persons. The organization was formalized under the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces and named the Central Tracing Bureau on February 15, 1944. As the war unfolded, the bureau was moved from London to Versailles, then to Frankfurt am Main, and finally to Bad Arolsen, which was considered a central location among the areas of Allied occupation and had an intact infrastructure unaffected by war.
On July 1, 1947, the International Refugee Organization took over administration of the bureau, and on January 1, 1948 the name was changed to its current International Tracing Service. In April 1951, administrative responsibilities for the service were placed under the Allied High Commission for Germany. When the status of occupation of Germany was repealed in 1954, the ICRC took over the administration of the ITS. The Bonn Agreement of 1955 (which stated that no data that could harm the former Nazi victims or their families should be published) and their amendment protocols dating from 2006 provided the legal foundation of the International Tracing Service. The daily operations were managed by a director appointed by the ICRC, who had to be a Swiss citizen. After some discussion, in 1990 the Federal Republic of Germany renewed its continuing commitment to funding the operations of the ITS. The documents in the ITS archives were opened to public access on November 28, 2007.
Tracing missing persons, clarifying people’s fates, providing family members with information, also for compensation and pension matters, have been the principal tasks of the ITS since its beginning. Since the opening of the archives, new tasks such as research and education and the archival description of the documents gain more importance in relation to the tasks of tracing and clarifying fates. Since these new activities are not part of its humanitarian mission, the ICRC withdrew from the management of the ITS in December 2012. The Bonn Agreement was replaced on December 9, 2011, when the eleven member states of the International Commission signed two new agreements in Berlin on the future tasks and management of the ITS.
The organization is governed by an International Commission with representatives from Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, and the United States. The Commission draws up the guidelines for the work to be carried out by the ITS and monitors these in the interests of the former victims of persecution.
The German Federal Archives are the institutional partner for the ITS. The director of the ITS is appointed by the International Commission, acts as its secretary and is accountable directly to the Commission. Since January 2013, Rebecca Boehling is the director. There are about 290 staff employed by the ITS. The institution is financed from the budget of the German Federal Government.
ITS’s total inventory comprises 26,000 linear metres of original documents from the Nazi era and post-war period, 232,710 meters of microfilm and more than 106,870 microfiches. Work is under way to digitize the files, both for purposes of easier search and for preserving the historical record.
The inventory is split up into three main areas: incarceration, forced labour and displaced persons. The variety of documents is enormous. They include list material and individual documents, such as registration cards, transport lists, records of deaths, questionnaires, labour passports, health insurance and social insurance documents. Among the documents are also examples of prominent victims of Nazi persecution, i.e. Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, as well as Schindler’s original list.
In addition to this there are smaller sections associated with the work of a tracing service: the alphabetical-phonetic Central Name Index, the child search archives and the correspondence files. The Central Name Index represents the key to the documents. With 50 million references on the fate of over 17.5 million people, it is based on an alphabetic-phonetic filing system that was developed especially for ITS.
After the end of the Second World War the main task of the ITS was initially to conduct a search for the survivors of Nazi persecution and their family-members. Now this accounts for no more than about three percent of its work, which is why the name of the organisation is no longer really up-to-date. However, a large number of new obligations have been taken on over the course of the decades.
These include certification of the forms persecution took, confirmation for pension and compensation payments, allowing victims and their family members to inspect copies of the original documents and enabling the following generations to find out what happened to their forebears. The service has responded to 11,8 million requests since 1946. In 2012, the number of requests to the International Tracing Service remained relatively stable at 1.100 requests per month. Overall, in 2012, the ITS received 13,365 requests regarding the fate of 20,849 persons from survivors, family members or researchers.
During the compensation phase of Eastern European forced labourers through the “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” Foundation between 2000 and 2007, around 950,000 enquiries were sent to the Tracing Service. As a result of this flood of enquiries, the ITS was tremendously over-extended. Consequently, this created a gigantic backlog, which temporarily did considerable damage to the standing of the institution. Especially enquiries, which had no direct bearing on the foundation, remained unprocessed. In 2008, the ITS was able to completely reduce the remaining backlog of enquiries.
On 28 November 2007 the ITS archives were made broadly available to the general public The ITS records may be consulted in person, or by mail, telephone, fax or e-mail; addresses and contact numbers are available on the ITS website . The mailing address is:
- International Tracing Service (ITS)
- Große Allee 5 - 9
- 34454 Bad Arolsen
Making the inventory researchable for all historical issues is an urgent responsibilities after opening the archives. To date, the arrangement of the documents having been collected over a period of six decades was subject to the requirements of a tracing service, which brought families together and clarified the fates of individuals. The Central Name Index was the key to the documents, while the documents were arranged according to victim groups. This principle no longer is sufficient, since historians ask not only for names, but also for topics, events, locations or nationalities. The goal is to compile finding aids that can be accessed and published online and are based on international archival standards. The first series of inventories could be published on the Internet (for the time being in the German language only). The documents were indexed according to their origin and content. In view of the volume of the documents to be described, this process will take some years’ time.
The ITS had been criticized before 2008 for refusing to open its archives to the public. The ITS, backed by the German government, had cited German archival law to support their position. The laws mandate a 100-year-gap between releasing records in order to protect privacy. However, their critics argued that the ITS as such is not subject to German law. One accusation raised against Germany and the ITS by critics was that the archive was kept closed out of a desire to repress information about the Holocaust.
Critics cited the fact that all eleven governments sitting on the International Commission of the ITS endorsed the Stockholm International Forum Declaration of January 2000, which included a call for the opening of various Holocaust-era archives. However, since the Declaration was made, there had been little practical change in the operations of the ITS, despite repeated negotiations between the ITS, ICRC, and various Jewish and Holocaust survivor advocacy groups. A critical press release from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum written in March 2006 charged that "'In practice, however, the ITS and the ICRC have consistently refused to cooperate with the International Commission board and have kept the archive closed.'" In early 2006, several newspaper articles also raised questions about the quality of the ITS' management and the underlying reasons for the existing backlog.
In May 2006, the International Commission for the ITS decided to open the archives and documents for researchers use, and to transfer, upon request, one copy of the ITS archives and documents to each one of its member states. This took place once all 11 countries ratified the new ITS Protocol. On November, 28th, 2007 it was announced that Greece, as the last of the member countries, filed its ratification papers with the German Foreign Ministry. It has now been announced that the documents in the archive are open to public access.
Copies made available
The International Commission at its May 2007 meeting approved the US Holocaust Memorial 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 USHMM received the first installment of records and in November 2007, received the Central Name Index. Materials will continue to be received as they are digitized.
One institution is designated for each of the 11 countries to receive a copy of the archive. The following locations have been designated by their country.
- United States - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Israel - Yad Vashem
- Poland - Institute of National Remembrance
- Luxembourg - Centre de Documentation et de Recherche sur la Resistance
- Belgium - National Archives of Belgium
- France - French National Archives (Archives Nationales)
- United Kingdom - The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide
Covert role in Cold War
Associated Press (AP) reporters who were given access to ITS files found a carton of documents related to an escapee program run by the Truman Administration. The AP reporters used these files and declassified US documents to describe how the United States asked the ITS to run background checks on escapees from Eastern Europe. The Central Intelligence Agency reviewed their histories and then recruited some of them to return to their countries of origin, to spy for the United States. The program did not return very much useful intelligence, because these recruits, motivated to impress their handlers, supplied information that was not reliable, and because by 1952, the Soviets had largely exposed these efforts. Many recruits disappeared, presumed dead.
- "A new leaf has been turned over at the Tracing Service: Press release (April 30, 2008)
- "Agreement on the International Tracing Service of December 9, 2011
- "A new leaf has been turned over at the Tracing Service: Press release" (April 30, 2008)
- Museum | Press Room | Press Room Archive
- A Holocaust Denial - washingtonpost.com
- "Closed archive leads to Holocaust denial claim: Special reports", Guardian Unlimited
- Tensions Rise In Long Feud Over Access To Nazi Archive
- Nazi archives finally made public - CNN.com
- International Tracing Service FAQ at USHMM
- Cold War humanitarian program had covert side, AT&T News, December 28, 2008