Arolsen Archives

Above, Photograph, Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018. Source: C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained

In 2014, while paying a first visit in many years to the Wiener Holocaust Library, London, I was looking at their website when I got my first intimation that the International Tracing Service existed (now Arolsen Archives) at Bad Arolsen, Germany.

With what little information I had then, I duly emailed my search forms. I can’t describe how excited I was at the thought that I might finally get some information about my family. The forms I sent out that excited state must have been completely garbled. I still feel a flush of embarrassment at how confused they will have been.

Photograph, Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018. Source: C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained

In Autumn 2014 I got an auto-message back, saying there was a backlog for searches; by March 2015 I had still received no update. I now know that Arolsen receives annually some 20,000 requests for information about the victims of National Socialism.

So – you know – be patient with them if you’re applying for records. They work with careful diligence for all of us.


Next, I discovered that a copy of the ITS database was held by the Wiener Library. It transpired that I could submit a request for tracing with the Wiener, but that I could also sign up to a session to learn how to search the database for myself.

Photograph, Files at Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018. Source: C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained

Being of a somewhat impatient nature … I opted for the latter. Though if I thought this would be a speedy resolution to my ‘need to know’, I was to be was sorely mistaken.

The ITS database, as it was then, is vast and unwieldy to use. When I began, many of the records were still to be uploaded at Bad Arolsen, let alone at the Wiener, which used to get tranches of records to upload some time after Arolsen had uploaded at their end of things.

Then there’s the ITSD itself, which is something of a challenge to learn to use, shall we say.

Werner Weissenberg, Arolsen Archives, Central Names Index, Record card, Dachau. Source: Wiener Holocaust Library, London, 2014. Image C Weissenberg, pers. archive

Having said this, the ITSD is extraordinary. Every search starts with the Central Name Index – the key to the documents that are buried here. The index includes around 50 million cards concerning the fate of 17.5 million people. You can see what these reference cards look like on the ‘ITS records’ pages that branch off the family tree names (see here, for example).

Once the index cards have been located, the tricky part starts – trying to understand the file references on the cards, and then trying to find the documents to which the file numbers refer.

Photograph, Werner Weissenberg, Dachau record, Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018. Source: C Weissenberg, pers. archive

I shouldn’t complain: many will find little or nothing here to satisfy their need to know. Whether our family members are likely to appear in the ITSD depends on how they died (or indeed, if they survived). And in this sense, I have been fortunate in finding some new, documented information.

My own experience of the ITSD was one of both elation and gratitude and, at the same time, one of frustration and disbelief that any database still functioned like this in 2015.* It felt like it was built 20 years previously. Still, without it, I wouldn’t have got nearly so far with our search.

And I must admit that part of the ITS appeal, as time has gone by, has been a sense that it’s a bit like being involved in the world’s slowest whodunit…

The world slows down, as the ITSD boots up, and history unwinds before one’s eyes and searching fingers. There’s an appeal in that too, it seems.

Photograph, Werner Weissenberg, Dachau entry record, Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018. Source: C Weissenberg, pers. archive

And perhaps, after all, this long, slow, challenging search was an appropriate mode by which to uncover another part of my history.

In the end, after all these years, this excavation of the records could take a little longer.

Bad Arolsen, Winter 2019. Photograph, C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained

Update: March 2021

*Many of the Arolsen Archives records are now searchable online from homes and schools, at https://arolsen-archives.org/en/.


ITS Glossary

USHMM provides an incredibly useful glossary of terms in relation to the ITSD, here. I’m sorry not to be able to provide it as a PDF, but it’s over 300 pages long. I have downloaded it onto my desktop for the time being, while I need to refer to it so often in order to ‘translate’ the record cards of various kinds. This avoids having to wait while it downloads each time. I’d recommend this to anyone going through the process of searching the database.

Update: March 2021

Arolsen Archives now has a fantastic e-Guide to the records, which can be found here: https://eguide.arolsen-archives.org/en/


Arolsen Archives / International Tracing Service – results

For each family member, where relevant, the ITS records can be seen by following the links in the main menu: Family tree -> name -> ITS records; see here, for example, for Werner’s ITS records.

I am intending to return to Poland to try and find other genealogical information about family who died before the holocaust started. I will also be looking for more information about my grandfather Leopold, about whom I know relatively little at this stage. Although he died in 1941, he does not appear in the ITS database* because he died of a heart attack ‘following a police action’. As such, it has been explained, he will not have ‘popped up’ in the National Socialist system of records – or in Red Cross or similar searches either during or after the war. He never entered a concentration camp, or a work detail, so he would not appear in this database. Hence my hope that a local search in Poland might tell us something more about Leopold and about other members of our family.

Update: August 2015

I was recently carrying out a search in the Arolsen database when I happened to come across a section I hadn’t known was there. And in fact there is one record for Leopold here, in the section for the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland. It is a Gleiwitz synagogue record, which records his death (see Leopold’s page).