THE INTERNATIONAL TRACING SERVICE ARCHIVE

Frequently Asked Questions
(Updated as of 6/15/2007)

For more information, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum’s regularly updated Web site, www.ushmm.org/its.
A toll-free hotline will be available soon.

A. BACKGROUND

What is the International Tracing Service?

The International Tracing Service archive (ITS), located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is the largest closed Holocaust-era archive in the world. The archive was established by the Allied powers after World War II to help reunite non-German 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 liberation of concentration camps that they administered following the war. Since then, the archive has continued to grow as new records, both originals and copies, have been deposited there.

Who runs the International Tracing Service?

The archive is controlled by an 11-nation treaty signed in 1955 and governed by an International Commission consisting of representatives from those countries. The treaty can be viewed at www.ushmm.org/its. The archive is administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Its operations and staff of more then 300 employees are funded by the German government.

How much information is in the archive?

The archive contains approximately 30-50 million pages of documentation on 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 miles of shelving are required to hold all the files.

What information does the archive contain?

The archive consists primarily of three major sections:
1) Camps, transports, ghettos, and arrest records;
2) Forced and slave labor records;
3) Displaced person records.

Approximately one quarter of the records deal with Holocaust victims. The remaining material covers non-Jewish forced laborers and displaced persons, political opponents and other persons arrested, detained or persecuted by Nazi authorities.

In addition, ITS staff created a Central Name Index which consists of some 17.5 million names, on approximately 40 million index cards. (Some names appear on multiple documents and on multiple cards.) Of the approximately 40 million cards, only an estimated 3 million have had names and birth dates entered into a database that is searchable. Therefore, the remaining 37 million cards are not searchable at this time.

Why is the archive being opened now?

For decades survivors have 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 Museum to help them receive this information.

The Museum has been pressing for the opening of the archive for many years, but faced strong resistance from the governments of the International Commission, the International Red Cross and ITS.

After strongly pressuring the various entities, the Museum thought it had a commitment from the ITS. But in 2005, when ITS failed to fulfill its promise to open the archive, the Museum decided that the situation was intolerable and initiated 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 Red Cross and a number of countries on the 11-nation International Commission insisted on amending the 1955 treaty 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 has taken an extraordinary amount of time as each country goes through its ratification process.

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 to hold its copy.

Where do negotiations stand now?

As a result of the Museum’s efforts in the past year, the U.S., Israel, Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Belgium have ratified amendments to the treaty. France, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg are in the process of doing so. The Museum expects this to happen in the coming months and continues to press the urgency of these four countries completing their ratification process.

While countries were engaged in the time-consuming process of ratifications, the Museum successfully advocated a two-track process —working to accelerate the digitizing of the records, upgrading hardware, software, and finding aids, while simultaneously advancing the political process so that no more precious time is lost.

At its May 2007 meeting in Amsterdam, the International Commission approved the Museum’s proposal to permit advance distribution of the material, as each major section is digitized, to the designated repository institutions before the treaty ratification process officially opening the material is completed. This will allow the host institutions to begin preparations to make the material accessible while waiting for the remaining countries to ratify the agreement.

B. ITS AND THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM

Why is the Museum going to house the United States’ copy of the archive?

The International Commission decided that each of the 11 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. These two institutions have the capacity—in terms of historical, archival, and technological expertise—to manage a collection of this size and complexity.

The Museum already maintains an archive of approximately 40 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 (scanned electronically) before they can be transferred. The Museum expects to receive the records in three batches.

The first batch of digitized raw data, which includes approximately 13.5 million frames of material in the “camps, transport, ghettos, and arrest records” section, should arrive in early fall. Somewhat later in the fall, the Museum expects to receive copies of the almost 40 million index cards (containing the 17.5 million names). The amount of data in this first batch alone is equivalent to approximately 8,000 CDs.

The accelerated digitization schedule at the ITS calls for the second batch of materials—the forced and slave labor records—to be ready for transfer by early 2008.

The final batch includes the displaced persons camp records and should be completed in late 2008 or 2009.

C. ITS AND ACCESSIBILTY

What steps must be completed for the Museum to be able to respond to survivor requests?

Four things are necessary:

1. All 11 countries must have ratified the new agreement.
2. The data must be digitized
3. The digitized data must be transferred to the Museum
4. The digitized raw data must be made accessible through the creation of new software that will make it searchable.

We hope that these four steps will be completed for the first batch of material by the end of the year.

The technical hurdles are immense. The ITS systems were never set up to be used by anyone other than the ITS staff on site in Bad Arolsen, where the paper records could be consulted while using the search software. Computer experts and archivists from nine of the 11 countries on the International Commission met at ITS in February 2007. For a number of reasons, they unanimously rejected the ITS search system as a viable system for searching the documents off site. Therefore, after the documents are digitized and transferred, the Museum, which has already invested in new hardware to substantially expand the storage capacity of its network servers to receive the digitized documentation, will create a software system to make the records more easily accessible than they have been at the ITS. Once this is in place, the Museum will be able to make the collection more easily accessible and respond to survivor inquiries.

Why is the Museum not using the computer software system in place at the ITS?

The ITS system was developed more than 10 years ago. It 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 accumulated 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 going to be available 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.

Substantially less than 10 percent 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 will be 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.

Once the material is officially open, the best way to ensure that survivors receive accurate information quickly and easily will be by submitting requests to the Museum by email, regular mail or fax. The Museum will provide copies of all relevant original documents to survivors who wish to receive them via email or regular mail.

D. PROVIDING INFORMATION TO SURVIVORS

How will survivors know when they can make a request for information?

After the remaining four countries ratify the changes, the Museum will announce through the media, Holocaust organizations, email newsletters, and on the homepage of its Web site that the archive is ready to be searched. The announcement will specify how inquiries can be made. Updated information will be posted on the Museum’s Web site, www.ushmm.org/its , as it becomes available. Survivors will soon be able to sign up on the Museum’s Web site to receive regular email updates. Additionally, the Museum will set up a special toll-free phone number.

Will survivor requests be given priority?

Yes. Requests from or on behalf of survivors will receive priority over all other inquiries.
The Museum’s trained staff in our Benjamin and Vladka Meed Survivors Registry have extensive experience in helping survivors do research, and they are in the process of familiarizing themselves with the ITS archive so that they will be able respond to inquiries in a timely manner.

Will survivors have to come to Washington to find their records?

No. No survivor will have to travel to Washington to receive information from the archive. Requests can be submitted via email, fax, and regular mail. All others – scholars, authors and other researchers – will have to visit the archive in person to access the information. The ITS records, like all of the Museum’s archival material, will be free and open to the public.

Does the ITS contain information on all survivors?

No. The files do not contain information on every survivor or every person who was victimized or killed. They only contain information on individuals whose names appeared on lists related to certain ghettos and concentration camps, forced or slave labor camps, or displaced persons camps. ITS does not contain all records from all ghettos, concentration, slave labor or displaced persons camps. Nor does it contain all “name lists” from the Holocaust.

For example, if someone fled the Nazis or was hidden, it is unlikely their name would appear in these records unless they registered at a displaced persons camp following the war. Or, if someone was killed on arrival at a camp and not registered at the camp, it is unlikely his/her name would appear on the camp records. It might, however, appear on a deportation list to that camp, if such a list is in ITS’ holdings.

What can survivors expect to receive from the Museum?

Anyone can come to the Museum and have access to the records at the Museum.

Any survivor whether they come to the Museum or not can expect:
1. To find out whether a name(s) appears in the card index, i.e. whether there is any information on that individual any where in the ITS records
2. The information on any name(s) that does appear in the records, once those records have been transferred from the ITS to the Museum
3. Copies (sent by email or regular mail) of any original documents that include the name(s), once those records have been transferred from ITS to the Museum

Will survivors have to pay to access these archival records?

No. All of the Museum’s archives are available for research at no cost. In addition, survivors will be provided copies of any available documentation relevant to their inquiries at no cost.

What if the archive contains information on a survivor, but is in part of the collection that has not yet been transferred to the Museum?

If a Museum search reveals that information resides in a portion of the collection that has yet to be transferred from the ITS, the Museum will provide all available reference information that will facilitate a search by ITS so that requests for these specific documents can be made directly to the ITS in Bad Arolsen. The Museum is pressing ITS to change its policy of generally not providing copies of documents to survivors.

If the Museum cannot find information about a person in the ITS archive, where else can I look?

It is possible that there might be information about that person in the Museum’s other records – about 40 million pages of archival documentation. Our trained staff, which already responds to approximately 8,000 requests per year, will help you search for that information. In addition, other institutions such as the American Red Cross, the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Service and Yad Vashem may have access to other documentation that may be useful.

What kinds of information will the Museum need in order to do a search?

The Museum will need the person’s full name, place of birth and date of birth. Also any additional information regarding camps, ghettos and dates of incarceration will help ensure they receive accurate information as quickly as possible.

How long will it take the Museum to provide an answer?

While the Museum cannot anticipate how many requests will be submitted, it is dedicating the technical and personnel resources required to provide accurate information to Holocaust survivors in a timely manner. We hope to be able to quickly determine whether or not information on an individual name is in the archive. More complex research to find exactly which documents include the name of that individual will take longer. Once the archive is open and the Museum begins responding to requests, we will have a better sense of the demand and how long the research will take.

Does the ITS contain information on life insurance policies?

There do not appear to be any collections that consist specifically of information about life insurance policies, although there may be some information within some individual records. The ITS staff have not encountered any significant number of such mentions, but they have also not systematically looked in individual files for such references.
Can the Museum help survivors find information for compensation claims?

If there is specific information on where survivors were imprisoned during the war that could help survivors with their claims, the Museum will make copies of the records and send them to survivors. While the Museum cannot file claims, survivors can use the copies as documentation for this purpose.

Can the Museum conduct genealogical research?

The Museum cannot conduct genealogical searches. Organizations such as Jewishgen.org (www.jewishgen.org) and the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Society (www.iajgs.org) can help with these requests.