In 2014, while paying a first visit in many years to the Wiener Library, London, I was looking at their website when I got my first intimation that the International Tracing Service existed (History of the ITS) at Bad Arolsen.
With what little information I had at that stage, I duly emailed off some search forms: I can’t describe how excited I was at the thought that I might finally get some information about my family. However, I got an auto-message back, saying that there was a backlog for searches (indeed, that was in autumn 2014; by March 2015 I had still received no update).* I then discovered that a copy of the ITS database was held at the Wiener. 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 myself.
Being of a somewhat impatient nature … I opted for the latter, though if I thought that this would be a speedy resolution to my burning ‘need to know’, I was to be was sorely mistaken …
The ITS database is vast and fairly unwieldy to use – and many of the records are still to be uploaded at Bad Arolsen, Germany, let alone at the Wiener, which gets the tranches of records to upload some time after Arolsen has uploaded at their end of things.
Then there’s the ITSD itself, which is something of a challenge to use, shall we say.
Having said that, the ITSD is also extraordinary – every search starts with the Central Name Index – the key to the documents that are buried here. I believe the database includes around 50 million reference cards concerning the fate of 17.5 million people. You can see what these reference cards look like on the ‘records’ pages that branch off our family tree pages for individuals (see here, for example).
Once the initial record cards have been located, the tricky part starts – trying to understand the file references that can be found on the cards, and then trying to find the documents that the file numbers refer to …
I shouldn’t complain, though: many will find nothing here to satisfy their need to know. It depends how one’s family members died (or indeed, if they survived) as to whether they are likely to appear in the ITSD. And in this sense at least, we have been fortunate in finding out quite a lot of new, documented information.
There is a detailed FAQs page on the ITS website, if you’d like to know more about what it offers, which you can also read through here: FAQ_International Tracing Service.
My own experience of the ITSD has been one of both elation and gratitude and, at the same time, one of frustration and disbelief that any database still functions like this in 2015. It feels like it was built 20 years ago: still, without it, I wouldn’t have got nearly so far with our search. And I must admit that part of the 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.
After all these years, I think I can afford for it to take a little longer: perhaps it’s even an appropriate mode in which to search through history.
*I did subsequently receive some information from Bad Arolsen, though by then I had found most of what was in the ITS relating to our own family members. It is definitely worth the wait, however, if you can’t get to a copy of the database in person.
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.
International Tracing Service – our own findings
If you follow this website’s menu (on desktops, this is on the left-hand side of the screen), you can look at Our family tree -> name -> ITS records; see here, for example, for Werner’s ITS records.
In a number of cases regarding our family members, there are no records in the ITS. This is because some died before the start of the Second World War. For example, I have not been able to ascertain any further information about my great-grandfather Joseph, because he died in 1916, long before the holocaust started: thus, his details do not fall within the remit of the ITS. Similarly, his daughter Rosa Bloch also died, we believe, before the start of the war, in 1933.
When we have finished having the family letters translated from the 1930s and 1940s, we may gain more information about such people. I am also intending to return to Poland to try and find more usual kinds of genealogical information about family who died before the holocaust started. I will also be looking for more information about my grandfather Leopold, about whom we also 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 to me, 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 him and other members of our family.
Update: August 2015
I was recently carrying out a search in the ITS 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).