The International Tracing Service and the Bad Arolsen Archives

Historical Survey

Entrance of the ITS building © Arolsen Archives

As early as 1943, the British Red Cross coordinated the first efforts to find missing persons in the territories recently liberated by the Allies.

In 1944, Allied military authorities took over the process: a Central Tracing Bureau was set up, and there was an increase in initiatives on the part of humanitarian organisations. For Jewish survivors, the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Central Committee of Jews in Poland attempted to systematically compile lists of survivors and to help locate relatives. These initiatives were supplemented by national offices established by states whose nationals—whether civilians, resistance fighters, or deportees—had been displaced by the war.

In 1948, the tracing service moved to Bad Arolsen, in the heart of the Western occupation zones and the future German Federal Republic, and was renamed the International Tracing Service (ITS). From 1955 onwards, the service was placed under the neutral supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, before being transferred to the German archives in 2012.

The ITS Archives

The ITS archives in Bad Arolsen brought together two archival collections covering two distinct sequences, in an effort to provide families with as much information as possible, and to trace the whereabouts of missing persons. The first relates to Nazi persecution and concerns the period of the war; the second traces the important migrations and repatriations that took place throughout Europe from the Liberation to the early 1950s.

At the end of the war, the ITS recovered many archives relating to Nazi persecution in the broadest possible sense: lists of deportation convoys; detainee registers from concentration camps, prisons, and other places of internment; individual files for prisoners upon their entry or transfer; lists of patients in camp hospitals; lists of victims; localization of execution sites and mass graves; and groups included in death marches, among others. These archives are extremely diverse in nature, and provide varying details about the persons concerned. The documentation mainly covers the territories incorporated or occupied by the Third Reich, and to a lesser extent its allied states; the materials are also very irregular from one place to another due to significant gaps, often caused by the massive destruction of traces and documents by the Nazis themselves.

ITS, Bad Arolsen, Camp files, Auschwitz © Arolsen Archives
ITS, Individual DPs card, Dora Cingel © Arolsen Archives

The ITS also preserves important archives produced in Western Europe by the institutions responsible for the supervision, administration, and guidance of populations displaced by war. After its creation in 1947, the International Refugee Organization (IRO), following the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), began a vast registration and retrospective survey of displaced populations in Europe that had requested assistance. These requests to be registered in the Care and Maintenance (C/M) programme led to the creation of thousands of familial application files, in which displaced individuals were asked to provide information on their civil status, social origins, and trajectory since the 1930s, as well as their plans for future migration. Whereas UNRRA seemingly proceeded with great haste, and supervised large groups, mainly in Germany, the IRO administered families and individuals throughout Europe and the world. The systematic registration of those protected by international organisations as “displaced persons” (DPs) produced many other documents, in particular individual cards with name, date of birth, a brief description, and sometimes a photograph. In addition to the card, which the bearer was required to carry at all times as an identity document, there were also registration cards in each DP camp. These contain additional information, including the group with which the person concerned was travelling, as well as the stated destination of emigration, which could vary according to the different registration points.

How to search the ITS Archives?

The ITS archives were designed to facilitate the search for individuals.

The service was and remains dedicated to helping families find their relatives. One section is dedicated to children who may have been taken from their parents or who were lost during the conflict, with the ITS making it a priority to help and identify them. Since 1953, the archives of the International Tracing Service have responded to millions of requests from across the globe, and have systematically kept track of them. The emblem of the Tracing Service is its immense index of names, which includes each of the 17 million individuals mentioned in its archives. While the service remains open for personal requests, the archives were largely closed to researchers until 2007. This gradual opening was accompanied by a major digitisation campaign of ITS archives, under the supervision of the USHMM. Since 2019 it has been partially accessible online, and (almost) fully available from a specific terminal in the dedicated archival centres (National Archives in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, Wiener Holocaust Library in London, USHMM in Washington). Only documents relating to the internal and daily functioning of the institution have been excluded. On this occasion, the ITS changed its name to the Arolsen Archives – International Center on Nazi Persecution, reflecting its new missions and opening, without altering its structure.

ITS, Bad Arolsen, Central Name Index ©  photographie Michael Probst/AP

The archive website reflects the previous mission of the ITS, oriented towards searches for specific individuals. The digitisation of the ITS archives allows quick access to various documents. Only name-based searches are systematically effective, although searching by geographic, ethnic, and religious criteria is also possible. However, these criteria do not apply to all collections, and their cross-referencing can therefore provide only a partial overview of the populations searched for, with no guaranty of exhaustive results.

The Arolsen Archives helps grasp the consequences of Nazi violence as closely as possible—place by place and individual by individual—and to then follow the trajectories of persecuted and displaced persons step by step through Europe. The millions of files now accessible can help pinpoint the geography and temporality of wartime persecutions and post-war migrations. The millions of names, faces, and trajectories that these documents contain largely remain undisclosed.

For further information

Arolsen Archives, International Center on Nazi Persecution

Diane Afoumado, « Archives – La collection de l’International Tracing Service », Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, n° 139, 3/2018, p. 221-230

Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Nazi Persecution and Postwar Repercussions. The International Tracing Service Archive and Holocaust Research, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

Jean-Marc Dreyfus, « À Bad Arolsen, dans la forêt des archives nazies », La Vie des idées, 11 septembre 2008

Monique Leblois-Péchon, « Les recherches sur les personnes déplacées dans les archives du Service international de recherches de Bad Arolsen », dans Corine Defrance, Juliette Denis et Julia Maspero, Personnes déplacées et guerre froide en Allemagne occupée, Bruxelles, Peter Lang, 2015, p. 369-381