Empty wallets – empty memories

April 18, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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The International Tracing Service based in a small German town is the world’s largest archive of Nazi documents and has made a contribution to the Sydney Jewish Museum of wallets seized by the Nazis during WWII…stripped of their contents and the identities of their original owners.


Dr Susanne Urban and the empty wallets photo: Henry Benjamin

But hope remains for those searching for a link to disconnected families. Under the auspices of the Australian Red Cross the archives of the ITS based in Bad Arolsen are now available to assist linking surviving victims of the Nazi persecution and their descendants with family members who ‘disappeared’ in the cauldron of World War II.

Three years ago, the archives were made available for the first time to researchers and among the first to visit the 26,000 meters of documents was Sydney-based Professor Konrad Kwiet. During his visit, the resident historian of the Sydney Jewish Museum befriended the Head of Research at ITS Dr Susanne Urban persuading her to visit Sydney.

Dr Urban came bearing gifts…empty wallets from the ITS archives and Nazi symbols which will be on permanent display at the Darlinghurst museum. She told J-Wire: “We have given documents and artifacts to a few museums within Germany but this is the first time we have contributed items for our archives to an overseas museum.”

Professor Kwiet told the function at Sydney Jewish Museum that the contents of the archives had been “kept under lock and key for over half a century”. The archives are not solely focused on Holocaust victims or the gypsies, homosexuals and political victims of the Nazi era but also on the political phenomenon of the Nazis themselves.

Personal Effects

Dr Urban said that the archives contain more than 20 million pages of documents including many individual records relating to displaced persons. The archives started collecting their records in 1943 and became the International Tracing Services in 1948. She said that between 1939 and 1948  unaccompanied children…separated from their parents who had been taken to concentration or forced labour camps. The children’s ages ranged from birth to 17. A special child search branch was established with more than 300,000 children registered by the organisation.

The organisation is administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross based in Geneva and funded by the German federal budget.

Professor Kwiet said that a consortium of around eight countries was set up about eight years ago as stakeholders. He said: “Australia was not interested in joining this consortium which had access to the files. It should have been as there were not just Holocaust survivors but many displaced persons who came here after the war.” The  ITS also acquired all the archival material from the allied armies and it has become the largest depositary of Nazi records.

He added: “When I went three years ago  as team leader in researching the DP records, it was Arolsen opening its secrets to researchers for the first time. There are still huge numbers of records which are unexplored. Even the people in Arolsen don’t know what they have.”
The archives hold a large number of personal effects whose owners have been identified…but not traced.







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