Paper Love: Inside the Holocaust Archives

Thousands of Cardboard Boxes
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 8 2009 7:02 AM

Paper Love: Inside the Holocaust Archives

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BAD AROLSEN, Germany—For most of the hourlong journey, I was the only person on the train from Kassel to Bad Arolsen. It was, for all intents and purposes, a milk train, but since this is Germany, it was souped-up and sleek with a bullet nose. The train conductor and I passed through bucolic villages, miles of farmland, rolling hills, everything short of shepherds in lederhosen. I had spent the night before at the home of two academic friends—Uli and Urte—in Kassel. During World War II, as with most farming families who sent a man off to the front, the Reich gave Urte's family a forced laborer, a Russian, probably a POW from the Eastern Front, who was forbidden to socialize with the family. Years ago, Urte came across a photo of her grandmother's first husband (killed at the front) with the SS symbol on his collar scratched out.

Here is what it feels like upon entering the archives at Bad Arolsen: like a Steven Spielberg movie about an American lawyer of the 1950s, desperately searching for information on an escaped Nazi but with no computers, no modern technology, nothing but boxes and paper. It's like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie with the Ark of the Covenant tucked away in a warehouse. There might be treasures here, amid a sea of 65-year-old cardboard, but who would know?

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To be fair, digitization is happening, slowly; 6.7 million documents on forced labor in the Third Reich were scanned this summer. But in the general documents alone—that means not the concentration camp rooms, nor the entire building devoted to files of displaced persons, nor the former schools that house the tracing and documentation files—there are 1,786 cardboard boxes filled with, among other things, documents on Heinrich Himmler's Lebensborn experiment (the quest to populate Europe with Aryan children using wombs from Germany to Norway and to kidnap children with Aryan features from Eastern Europe for adoption in the Reich), medical experiments, persecution outside of Germany, maps, court cases, letters between members of the SS, the institutional history of the tracing service, mass graves, and exhumations.

There are more than 16 miles of files, with faded, neatly typewritten labels. Book after book of death lists, held together with string. Typed documents explaining how, exactly, to turn a van into a murderous gas van. An entire maze of rooms devoted to millions of arbeitsbücher—little green books that document each forced laborer's time. The tracing and documentation files, which exist only in hard copy, are found a short drive off campus, in a former NATO driving school: dusty rooms filled with metal shelves stacked with loose reams of paper, piled in chronological order. Room after room with 1,000 files per shelf. About 3 million requests for information, 62 years of desperate pleas to find family members. "Unsolved," they are stamped; or "Auschwitz, no further information."

"When I am falling victim to routine," Udo Jost,the chief archivist, told me, "I take out folders to read, and then I am angry again. I need this furiousness to be committed." He drags on his cigarette. One year, the federal archive of Germany requested that Bad Arolsen begin microfilming and then destroying the original records. Jost lost his temper. "I say no! These are victims! They lost their names! They were given numbers! And in a few years, there will be no survivors, and then the victims will only be numbers!"

Jost has been at Arolsen since 1984. In December 2006, recognizing that the ITS situation had become a crisis, the International Committee of the Red Cross brought in one of its most decorated crisis-management stars, a Swiss man named Reto Meister, to replace the longtime director of ITS. Unlike Charles-Claude Biedermann, who spent two decades at the helm in Arolsen, Meister has never lived anywhere for very long. His career began in Baghdad in the early 1980s; it took him to Lebanon, El Salvador, Colombia, Israel, Angola, Sri Lanka—all during conflict. He was central to the ICRC's response to the 2004 tsunami. A negotiator by career and a linguist by training, Meister's appointment was acknowledgement from Geneva that ITS had failed at its task and in its responsibility to survivors—and that it had become a diplomatic black mark on the ICRC.

After countless hours of negotiations, over the next few years many of the documents on file here will be copied and transferred to the member countries of the international commission. But even this is political—there are battles as to which institutions in each country should receive the files. So far, it has been decided that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw will receive copies, but where else they should go is a point of contention. The process is slow going. To help accomplish that task, ICRC hired another newcomer, Irmtrud Wojak, a well-respected German academic. It was her job to begin converting what had been a tracing service into an archive. But it's difficult to keep smart staff in Bad Arolsen, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere: On Dec. 18, 2008, both Meister and Wojak announced that they were stepping down. Wojak took a post at the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, and Meister will head back to Geneva.

For its part, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum brought 16 scholars from around the world to Bad Arolsen for 10 days in June to take a core sample of the holdings and make recommendations for how to proceed. On my first day, I joined the scholars on a field trip to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a three-hour bus ride through that glorious countryside, to a modern cement block museum detailing the fate of prisoners and fields of mass graves that now look like nothing more than empty, grassy knolls.

Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a Parisian academic now teaching at the University of Manchester in England, told me on the drive that Marlene Dietrich's sister had lived in the town of Bergen. When the actress toured Germany after the war, her sister revealed that she had run a movie theater for the SS guards of the camp. Marlene never spoke to her again.

Dreyfus is the reason I'm in Arolsen to begin with—it was his work on the Paris camps that I wrote about in 2004—and it was Dreyfus who told me that the Holocaust museum was organizing scholars to come to Arolsen. "We need a very detailed inventory," he says of the archives. "For the moment, we don't know exactly what's new." He urges me to be cautious in my presentation of what the press labeled a scandal. "We don't know what was already available," he says, meaning what existed as copies in the archives of member countries. He continues, "There are probably treasures, but they have to be catalogued or inventoried." One of the problems with simply copying the material and sending it to institutions around the world, a proposal that has been floated by survivor organizations, is that the organization of ITS was so specific to its task—tracing individuals rather than looking at group history—that the material as it is currently assembled is hard for outsiders unfamiliar with the collections to analyze. It is too hodgepodge, too disconnected.

One of the other USHMM-sponsored scholars is a jocular Aussie academic (by way of Holland and Germany) named Konrad Kwiet. I tell him about my grandfather and Valy, and of my discomfort with my grandfather's inability to save her."I think one should not impose any moral verdicts on behavior," he cautions. Kwiet's parents split soon after the war ended; they had stayed together for its duration because such Mischehe or "mixed" relationships—mother Jewish, father Christian—could save the Jewish half of the couple. Kwiet is here for migration analysis— nearly 50 percent of Australia's large Jewish community descends from survivors.

"There are documents here of utmost significance, but it depends on the questions you ask the document," Kwiet tells me. We are sitting in a mediocre cafe across from the archives; I am perpetually hungry reading about starvation. "It's not a holy grail," he says, "but it will change the direction of research. It's not revolutionary—it's not Hitler's order to kill the Jews. But it will become a place of institutionalized memory."

And, yes, there are the lists. Jessica Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers and another invitee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is working on a dissertation about "voluntary" prostitution in the camps. We were sitting outside the archive's main entrance, taking in a moment of sun outside the dusty aisles of boxes. Using lists of prisoner numbers that she had come across in archives at the Dachau, Buchenwald, and Neuengamme camps, she was able to find the names of several dozen—non-Jewish—women forced into prostitution in the camps. "You read about the conditions at Ravensbruck, thousands of women crammed together, the latrines, it's a disgusting mess." "Volunteering" to be a prostitute gave a woman more food, real clothes, a place to sleep. At ITS, Jessica is able, for the first time, to begin constructing a real social history of prostitution in the camps. She will argue that prostitution was itself a form of forced labor.

In the communications office of ITS, there are several files waiting for me. There are my grandfather's cousins Manele and Chaja Wildmann, deported from Vienna in 1941 and killed in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, respectively. And then there is Valy. I feel a surge of irrational hope. Instead, I see her deportation date—Jan. 29, 1943, just as Yad Vashem had indicated—and I run upstairs to look for her name on the transport list. One thousand Jews left Berlin for Auschwitz that day; only 10 have death certificates. There is no further evidence of Valy's existence. She has no camp number. This means she could have died in transit, Dreyfus reminds me, or—just as gruesomely likely—been gassed on arrival. This was one of the last transits before the liquidation of the entire above-ground Berlin Jewish community, a series of deportations that began in February 1943 known as the Fabrikaktion, or factory action, because the Jews were swept from their factory jobs onto the trains. As for Valy, I know nothing more than I did before I arrived in Arolsen.

Except that there are several other files connected with Valy's. And because the number assigned to an individual's file remains the same from the first request until the last, I see that in 1956 a woman named Charlotte Ilse Mayer, nee Fabisch, requested information on Valy. That's because Valy appears to have married a man named Hans Fabisch—Charlotte's brother—in the last year of her life. He was 10 years her junior. The files give me a last-known address for them both and lists their crime—Jewishness. Kwiet assures me there must be a restitution file, issued on behalf of Hans' sister, requesting an indemnity payment for their deaths—and for this I must go back to Berlin.

Sarah Wildman, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the Guardian, was a 2008 Arthur F. Burns Fellow. This piece was made possible by a generous grant from the American Council on Germany.

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