What is the International Tracing Service? By Nadja Schmidt

Having been working as a German researcher for Polaron for well over a year now, sending weekly enquiries to the ITS, I’ve recently had the pleasure to finally visit the International Tracing Service in person. I was curious to see how the ITS works, how they process our enquiries and what we could do to speed up the process of obtaining documents. I would like to share with you what I learned that day!

What is the ITS and how did they come into being?

During the Second World War, a large number of displaced people were brought into Germany by the Nazis, especially from Eastern European countries, mainly due to their religion or for forced labour. Already towards the end of the war, when it was clear that Germany was going to lose, the allies thought about the fate of all those displaced persons and refugees in other countries. What is going to happen to them after the war? A lot of people didn’t want to or couldn’t return to their home countries, families got separated, fates remained unknown. In order to keep track of all those forced out of their countries and trace missing people, the allies then founded what would later become the International Tracing Service in 1943 in London. They immediately started searching for missing people and establishing a registry of all prisoners, forced labourers and refugees in Middle Europe.

In 1955, an international committee took over responsibility for the ITS, at times under the patronage of the International Refugee Organization or the German Red Cross. Since 2012, they have been a completely autonomous organization.

Today, the ITS still is an international organization. Despite having its seat in Germany, it is run by a committee of eleven states. Since 2013, they have been part of the UNESCO heritage “Memory of the World”.

What does the ITS do?

The ITS mainly concentrates on their archives and enquiries besides doing some research work.

Their archives consist of three main parts: documents on concentration camps and imprisonment, documents on forced labour and documents on displaced persons camps.

The archives contain about 50 million references to around 17.5 million people. Every month, they receive about 1,000 enquiries from around 70 different countries, mostly from descendants, but still some from survivors of the Nazi persecution.

They also still have a large collection of so-called “effects” – personal belongings that were taken from the prisoners when they were brought to the concentration camps. These effects are mainly wallets, but they can be anything from keys to photos or coins. Still today, the ITS searches these wallets for clues on who they might have belonged to. Sometimes, they can match the effect to a person and are able to deliver their ancestor’s belongings to a relative.

What happens to our enquiries at the ITS?

When we send an enquiry to the ITS, it first gets registered and a file is opened – both in digital and paper form. All the important information from our enquiry is collected, including the information about who sends the enquiry. Priorities are given to survivors themselves due to their high age, as well as lawyers and companies like us, since the ITS knows we are in a legal process that needs to be completed. This means Polaron’s enquiries will always be prioritized over individual’s enquiries. However, they currently have around 9,000 open enquiries that haven’t been processed, so the waiting time can still be rather long.

After the file has been open, it proceeds to the research department.

The researcher’s first step is to check the Central Name Register. This register has been created by the ITS itself as soon as they started gathering documents. Every name from every document they found was put on an index card and added to the Central Name Register with the note, which document the name was found on and where this document can be found. Nowadays, this register is of course digitalized. Researchers enter a name into the Central Name Register and if they find index cards that match the given information, they can check the respective documents.

Similar to the Central Name Register, the ITS has registers for places, concentration camps, registration numbers and much more. Nearly any information that we give them can be entered into their database and help them find documents.

Every document that they find is another clue that allows them to search more thoroughly, search in additional registers or look for different information, until they can deliver us the most complete file possible about the person.