The International Tracing Service (ITS), now known as the Arolsen Archives, is an archive based in Bad Arolsen, Germany, containing over 30 million pages of Holocaust-era documents relating to the fate of over 17.5 million people. The ITS was originally founded to centralise postwar efforts to trace missing persons and help survivors discover the fate of family and friends caught up in the Holocaust and Nazi persecution during the Second World War. The creation of the ITS was disjointed and messy: it emerged out of several, separate (and sometimes competing) efforts by numerous organisations at various points, during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
One of the primary strands of the archive was created by the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) in Versailles, France, in 1944, as Allied forces liberated Europe and discovered thousands of people who had been displaced by the war (Displaced Persons – DPs). In order to begin helping, organising and repatriating these people, SHAEF requested that all DPs be registered and issued with an identification card.
As the Allies’ war effort progressed further into Europe, the documentation and tracing efforts of the Allies’ military forces followed and they moved to Frankfurt am Main, Germany. After SHAEF was dissolved in July 1945, the tracing efforts were temporarily taken over by the Combined Displaced Persons Executive of the Allied Control (CDPX) before being handed over to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRAA) in September 1945. Shortly after, the archive moved to Bad Arolsen.
UNRRA was put in charge of uniting the efforts of the various organisations, including indexing for names and organising Nazi documents that had been gathered during liberation, such as concentration camp and ghetto records, transport lists, Gestapo and police documents, and records of forced labour. This resulted in the creation of the Central Tracing Bureau (CTB), an archive that encompassed available documentation and centralised the search for missing people and Displaced Persons.
After UNRRA ceased to exist in 1947, it passed the CTB onto its successor, the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). In 1948, the IRO renamed the CTB the International Tracing Service (ITS). During this initial period of its existence between 1945 and 1955, the ITS primarily focused on helping people discover the fate of their relatives and other missing persons, registering and interviewing DPs, as well as conducting research projects, such as the ‘graves re-check’, which attempted to map the routes of the death marches and establish who died and where.
In 1955, an International Commission (IC) for the ITS was established to permanently govern the archive. The IC was originally composed of nine countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States of America), although this was later expanded to eleven with the inclusion of Poland and Greece. The IC oversaw the archive, but between 1955 and 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed its administration and general running.
Under the supervision of the Red Cross, the ITS functioned as a closed archive, meaning only those who worked there could access the documents. On request, it continued to help people trace their relatives and friends, although the process was often inefficient and extremely slow. It also aided the German Government and helped provide documents for restitution claims.
In 2006, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) led efforts to lobby the ITS to open its doors to the rest of the world and become an open archive for research. After significant initial opposition, the IC voted unanimously to open the archive and allow each IC member a digital copy for its citizens to access in their own country. Following this vote, the Red Cross felt it was no longer an appropriate organisation to lead an active research archive, rather than a tracing organisation, and withdrew its guardianship. It was replaced by the German Federal Archives, who continue its maintenance today.
In December 2011, the United Kingdom’s digital copy of the archive was deposited at The Wiener Holocaust Library, where it is still used to help historians and relatives of victims uncover what happened to hundreds of victims of Nazi persecution each year. In 2020, for example, ITS researchers at the Library investigated the experiences of over 326 victims of the Holocaust.
The ITS remains a crucial archive to understanding the history and long-lasting effects of the Holocaust and those who survived. As historian Dan Stone writes, the documents preserved in Bad Arolsen, ‘speak first and foremost to the ongoing suffering of Holocaust victims; [that] there was no ‘happy ending’ in 1945’ but, equally as important, these documents can also be used ‘to write a history of Nazi persecution focused on the victims that does not neglect the perpetrators’ [Dan Stone, “The Memory of the Archive: The International Tracing Service and the Construction of the Past as History”, Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust 31:2, (2017), 69-88, 87]. Using perpetrator and postwar documents, the ITS continues to help historians to reinstate the voices of the victims and survivors, without ignoring those that inflicted their conditions.