BAD AROLSEN, Germany—Udo Jost, a bearded, portly, unkempt man with strong smoker's breath, gestures behind him toward a plate-glass window protecting a sea of library-card files. "What you see here is the main key to the International Tracing Service," he says, speaking in German and pausing for translation, though he speaks English nearly fluently. "This is the Central Names Index—CNI—which covers three rooms and includes 50 million references for 17.5 million victims."
Jost flips open an encyclopedia-heavy tome that explains an arcane alphabetic-phonetic formula developed in 1945 for researching Nazi victims' names: In World War II prison camps, names changed from Cyrillic spellings to Germanic, Germanic to Francophone, Francophone to Polish, depending on who wrote down a prisoner's details upon arrival in a work, concentration, or annihilation camp. In practical terms, that means there were 848 ways to spell the name Abramowitz, 156 versions of Schwartz. "ITS was not structured like an archive," Jost continues. "The task was searching for victims and clarifying their fate. That's why the documents could not be structured according to geographic or national criteria. Families searching for relatives generally did not know to which place their loved one had been deported."
Jost has his patter down; he has begun to morph from chief archivist into tour guide. It's a transition he never anticipated.
The International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, was, until late 2007, the largest unopened Holocaust archive in the world. For decades, historians have begged to get inside these doors, the source of years of diplomatic tension between the United States—prodded by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—and our European allies. Toward the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, it became the locus of hopes of survivors and researchers from all over the world, partly because no one really knew what they would find there. ITS holds some 50 million records. Sheltered in several buildings—once SS barracks—across a wide campus that recalls a New England liberal-arts college, the archives are located in a small farm village with a large palace, home to the fairy-tale-sounding character Prince Wittekind of Waldeck. (His godfather, staying with the period theme, wasHeinrich Himmler.) By mandate, the archives were closed to research and outsiders beginning in 1955. That's when the myths began.
"Nobody knew exactly what was inside," Volkhard Knigge, director of the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial told me in the summer of 2006, after the international commission controlling the archives finally set a timetable to open ITS at a meeting in Luxembourg. "It became … a place of imaginations, of fantasies." We spoke by phone, I in Madrid, Spain, and he in Weimar, Germany. "Nobody knows exactly whether we will find—[for example] documents about decision making on the part of perpetrators or administrations of the crimes of the Holocaust. This archive became a kind of black box, and it invited people to create ideas about why nobody had access." Some thought the mystery was Germany's fault, he told me; others believed that the administrators were keeping "files hidden to let survivors die so that they cannot prove their right for financial compensation." Because it was a European rather than a German archive, some claimed that other nations had something to hide—perhaps proof of collaboration. Still others voiced concern that European privacy laws—stricter in many cases than those in the United States—would be violated if the files were opened.
What, exactly, was in the ITS collections was always a bit unclear. The basic facts were these: As the Allies crossed Europe, liberating concentration and labor camps, cities and towns, they collected documents left behind by the fleeing Nazis, and, over time, these collections were deposited—sometimes haphazardly, sometimes methodically—in Arolsen. Biographical cards from displaced persons camps ended up here, as did millions of files on forced labor, concentration camp inmates, Nuremberg, Nazi activity, and gruesome medical experiments—along with correspondence between Nazi officers, files on the dead, transport lists, sick lists, crime lists, and so on. The material covers political prisoners from across Europe, deported Jews, the millions of forced laborers from across Europe, and displaced persons—Jews who had survived the ghettos and camps as well as Eastern Europeans in flight from the Red Army. There are also post- and prewar photos and "personal effects"—rings, watches, photos—taken from prisoners. There are reams of postwar documents that follow the paths survivors took after the war
Efforts to trace the lost were run by a succession of international aid organizations including the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the International Refugee Organization. By the end of the war, the files at Arolsen were regularly used to answer queries regarding the millions of Europeans wandering the continent as well as about the millions of dead. Requests came in from every country touched by the war and, of course, from Jews. In 1948, the archives at Bad Arolsen became known as the International Tracing Service; seven years later, the management of the files was taken over by the International Committee of the Red Cross under what became known as the Bonn Accords.
The Bonn Accords mandated that the ICRC—considered an impartial institution—would control the files in Arolsen and that West Germany would be responsible for funding its operation. The holdings there were only to be used to trace survivors and victims—and to help families seeking restitution from the West German government. To alter that decree, 11 countries—Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United States—would have to agree unanimously to open the doors. Israeli officials from Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial center, slipped in before the deadline to microfilm deportation lists from several concentration camps, but after that, the files were specifically designated to serve only those seeking family information or postwar victimization compensation. Under West Germany's indemnity laws, victims had the right to pursue economic grievances against the German government for everything from being forced to wear the yellow star to death in a concentration camp. To obtain compensation, they had to somehow provide evidence of their experience—and a documentation file from ITS could do just that.
In the 1960s, ITS puttered along. But eventually the archive began to falter at its only task—tracing victims. Some say the biggest problems began with the arrival of Charles-Claude Biedermann, a Red Cross official appointed to take over ITS in 1985, who ruled the barracks at Arolsen like a fiefdom. He hired only local farm kids—who, for the most part, didn't speak foreign languages—to staff the more than 300 stations inside the archives; they became (and remain) curiously specific experts in parceled areas of research—deportations to the extermination camps, say, or displaced persons. Biedermann encouraged those who worked in "general documents" not to speak to those who worked in "concentration camp archives," the "displaced persons files," or the "TD files"—tracing and documentation—and vice versa. Almost nothing was digitized.
In 1989, when the Iron Curtain fell, hundreds of thousands of new demands for information came pouring in, and a backlog of around 500,000 requests piled up. The wait for information began to stretch out over years; victims were dying before they found the information they sought on themselves—to receive long-overdue restitution payments—or their loved ones. Some survivors had never discovered the fate of siblings, parents, or spouses. Angry families and survivor organizations agitated for the archives to be opened to public scrutiny.
In 2001, representatives of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum requested access to the files. They were denied. And then they began an intensive campaign to get inside—and to bring the files to Washington.
Three years later, after I wrote a story on three slave-labor camps in the heart of Paris for the Jerusalem Report, I was invited to an "on background" meeting with a handful of officials at USHMM. Could I write about the archives? they wondered. Perhaps it would put pressure on the 11 governments to change the Bonn Accords and open the archives to researchers and modernization in time for survivors to see their files. Magazines hesitated to commit to an in-depth piece on an archive that I wasn't allowed to see.
And yet like many without access to Bad Arolsen, I couldn't forget the archives.
Half the academics I spoke to were reverential about what they believed was hidden at Bad Arolsen; the other half thought the myths were just that—trumped-up stories and rumors. Those obsessed with the archives were just as fascinating as the archives themselves: What exactly were people hoping to find?
After the commission's 2006 meeting in Luxembourg, it took two more years for the archives to open their doors. In the meantime, I began to petition the USHMM to allow me to accompany them to Bad Arolsen along with the first group of scholars selected to start research there—a trip eventually slated for the summer of 2008.
I had another, more personal, reason to travel to Bad Arolsen.
After we packed up my grandparents' house in northwest Massachusetts upon my grandmother's death, I came across a box of letters marked "Patients' Correspondence." My grandfather had been a family physician in the United States after he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna. But inside the box I discovered not only letters from his patients in New York and Massachusetts but dozens upon dozens of letters from family and friends in Vienna, Berlin, Lyon, and Shanghai—all begging my grandfather, who had safely made it out, to cast the lifeline back and bring them over as well. About 50 of the collection were love letters. They were not from my grandmother. Written by a woman named Valerie Scheftel, the letters were baldly needy: She was desperately in love with my grandfather, and she was trapped in Berlin.
PITTSFIELD, Mass.—The box of letters from my grandfather Karl was a revelation.
At Karl's funeral, my father's eulogy began with the words of French Gen. Ferdinand Foch: "Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack." This was my grandfather—everything, regardless of reality, was always "wonderful." True story: Lacking the correct papers, fleeing Austria, my grandfather arrived in Hamburg, Germany, to board a ship armed only with a set of lies. As his sister and mother huddled anxiously at the port, my grandfather struck off to see the city. "Who knows when I'll next get the chance to see Hamburg?" he is said to have said. His flight from Vienna—age 26, a year after graduating from medical school at the University of Vienna and six months after theanschluss, when all the Jewish students were expelled from that institution—was nothing short of remarkable and complete with a happily-ever-after ending: Everyone in the family got out by sheer luck and lies. But the correspondence I found insisted otherwise.
"Dear Karl, I heard you married. And you have a boy," begins a damning missive dated September 1946. The boy is my father. "Since you left, I never heard from you. You never got the idea to ask us what happened with your relatives?" It is my grandfather's niece Lotte, writing from Lyon. She doesn't explain how she got from Vienna to France. "We had to sacrifice much. Our beloved parents died in a concentration camp." Her brother is dead, as are her son and her husband. Her brother-in-law has lost his mind. "I ask you to write to Regina [her sister] and me, because then we won't feel so alone in the world."
There are letters in Yiddish and Polish and German and Hebrew and one, blissfully, in French. German, unfortunately, is my worst language—slow and painful, it takes me a day to read each letter, and I fear I'm losing tone. But I'm friendly with enough native German speakers to be able to scan letters and e-mail them around. The letters from Shanghai begin in 1939 and continue through 1948. A handful of crumbling pages mark the last days of cousins in Vienna; they, too, curse Karl and his mother for abandoning them.
But it was Valerie—Valy—who haunted me. Beginning in December 1939, she promises to write weekly, and she does, in an emotionally messy, often banal, flood of innocence and pain, through the end of 1941, when America enters the war. In her first message, she explains that she has moved herself and her mother to Berlin from Troppau (now called Opava), a small, Austro-Hungarian town that became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I and had been "reclaimed" by Hitler prior to World War II under the Munich Agreement. Her mother runs a Jewish old-age home in Potsdam. Valy eventually works for the Reichsvereinigung, the Jewish council controlled by the Nazis that kept a firm lock on Jewish life in Nazi Germany. She is employed, variously, as a nurse, an aide, a teacher. According to the Yad Vashem archives, Valy was deported to Auschwitz on Jan. 29, 1943. But how she survived until that point—and what happened after—was a mystery.
It wasn't the first time I had heard of Valy. Before my grandmother died, I found a few photo-booth snaps of a girl and a short letter begging for news. I took them to my grandmother and asked who the girl was. "Your grandfather's true love," she spat. I called Celia Feldschuh, my grandfather's sister, about her. Celia told me that Valy was "brilliant" and that she had studied medicine with my grandfather at the University of Vienna. She'd spent the 1930s in love with him; he finally noticed her close to graduation and followed her to Troppau, where they became lovers. It was all very breathless, very End of the Affair.
In the letters, it is clear that Valy is endlessly holding her breath—"The letters are all about waiting, waiting for an answer and never knowing whether your grandfather is just not answering or if he doesn't receive her letters," one German friend wrote me after I e-mailed her a few scanned samples.
What's breathtaking (for me) is that mixed dependence, she's in love and she needs his help to get out of Germany ... actually [it's] awful. At the same time I don't like her tone, she calls him "mein Junge"—"my boy," which is so motherly and rigid. But she is writing into a void—pure nothingness—if I'm right, she scarcely got answers. … It's so ordinary in one sense (love and deception) and so cruel.
Valy writes that she is waiting to be taken off a two-year quota list to come to America. (This was not unusual: In the 1930s and early '40s, hundreds of thousands of Europeans were kept from immigrating to the United States based on nativist immigration restrictions passed in the 1920s.) She lists acquaintances who successfully pulled relatives from Berlin, urging Karl to find them and learn from their success. She alludes to the spiraling situation in Germany without ever fully disclosing what she witnesses. "Darling, I would like to tell you so much of what has happened to me—but when I start thinking about how to explain it all, I realize that the whole time is so poor of … positive experience. … I feel like I am sleeping with my eyes open, almost as though I'm in hibernation; in an eternal waiting for you," she writes in mid-1941. By this point, she would have been wearing the yellow star and forbidden from riding public transportation.
"You once told me," she writes in another letter, "that I should not sacrifice the present for the phantom of the future"—this is exactly the way my grandfather spoke—"but that makes me terribly sad, because I live nearly without present. Only from the past and for the future."
"He doesn't love her," my friend Uli, a sociology professor in Jena, near Weimar, told me when I arrived in Germany in June. "But nor does she love him anymore. I am totally sure. She is struggling for life." We were on a train from Kassel—which, despite the castle for which it is named, is known most for its ugly postwar-industrial downtown where Uli lives with Urte, a scholar in German feminist literature—to Marburg, a medieval university town not far from Bad Arolsen. "She desperately seeks commitment from him. I think it's commitment to survive, to make her and her mother survive."
In a telegram dated February 1941, Valy demands that my grandfather send a second affidavit—promising the U.S. government that she would not be a financial burden—to get her out of Germany. Three months later, she writes again—after first telling him she "met someone" but couldn't go through with it.
The concrete intention of my letter today is our immigration. … In the last few days we received a new affidavit. … Hopefully it will be enough for both of us. Because I very much hope that mama and I can emigrate together. But now there is another, extremely important question, regarding the passage to America. It is imperative that we are reserved—from the U.S.—two seats on a specific ship and for a specific time …
The most important thing is two designated, secure seats. … From here it is hard for me to know which ship companies might be best. I've heard that the American company is sold out until February 1942. On the Spanish Portuguese line there might be some seats from September on. But I am not sure if this is certain. Should there be a chance, a possibility, to go via Sweden, I think this would be the best. But it is said to be rather expensive. Please get in contact with Uncle Isiu and Dolfi Feldschuh in Vienna (we have also written to them), and please make it possible that we can get out at last. Perhaps you could get advice from Alfred Jospe, financially he cannot help you but he might have good advice. He is trying to get a group of his relatives out …
Germany closed its doors to legal immigration for Jews on Oct. 23, 1941. Any seats Valy secured after that date were lost. Yet in her final letters, she continues to plead for visas—to Cuba, to anywhere. She writes that she may soon have to work in a factory. I wonder whether Bad Arolsen will have her on a factory list, or whether it will have more information than Yad Vashem has provided, or what else I might find there. Could she have survived?
BERLIN—Aubrey Pomerance is a permanent expat. A Canadian, he has lived in Germany for 25 years—seven of those as the chief archivist at the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Daniel Libeskind architectural marvel in the center of the city. Pomerance urges me to consider donating Valy's letters to the museum. When I mention that her story is frustratingly incomplete, he waves a hand. "Be careful when you say incomplete," he says. "There is no collection that documents a person's life from moment of birth to moment of death. But you can cull a lot of information from one single document." It is also very useful, I am discovering, to show them to readers who are particularly well-versed in women of the period and who know Berlin.
At the time I met him, Pomerance had already been to the archives in Bad Arolsen once, but on a very focused tour with no opportunity to explore on his own.
"Up until now, it has served the purpose of what its title is—the International Tracing Service—in other words, finding out fates," Pomerance says, by way of introduction. He is very thin and never lost his Canadian "yeahs" and "abouts." He is balding; the hair left may once have been a vibrant red, but it has faded into a very, very slight shade of strawberry. He is nearly paler than white, and he is wearing a pale blue shirt, as though he is attempting to blend into the fading bits of paper he works with. "Descendents were left without really knowing exactly how or where their relatives died. People need a sense of finality, and that's what the ITS has been offering people—family members—for decades." And yet he cautions me about how I should present what some historians believed was a crisis of bureaucracy that kept the ITS collections closed to public scrutiny. "This is not a German institution. I think it's important you underline that," he says, referring to the 11 countries that controlled the keys."This is a shared responsibility."
Pomerance mentions that he was shown a book in Arolsen that I might see there, too; it documents the number of lice on the heads of individual prisoners. "When you see those documents," he says, "You think, 'My goodness, there are people counting the number of lice on inmates' heads. It's part of the whole, greater picture. It kind of adds to the incomprehensibility of it all.' " Even such a small mention in this type of file was enough to secure for a former prisoner the postwar indemnity payments he or she was eligible for after the war. Or it might simply be the only evidence that a person lived at all.
"It is incredible what still can, all of a sudden, be discovered," he remarks, musing on the discovery, eight years ago, by the Jewish community of Vienna, of a trove of files documenting the wartime history of the community and the wealth of information that has become available to researchers on the Internet. (On the Web site of the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, for example, I found the Gestapo mug shots for my cousin Chaja Wildmann and her husband.)
But nearly 70 years on, many believe that there are few "new" Holocaust discoveries to be found at Arolsen. Revelations, if they can be called that, are more likely to be of the kind I have made in my parents' basement, in the words of the victims preserved for seven decades, the pleas for help. There is great interest in the large body of letters, relatively intact, written by Jews trapped in Europe to those outside. Though Valy's letters were all opened by official "readers," there are ways to parse the lines to hear what she's really experiencing. They are not dissimilar to the pleas of Otto Frank, Anne's father, discovered at the YIVO Institute in Manhattan two years ago, begging for immigration aid from relatives abroad throughout 1941.
The night before I interview Pomerance, I meet with Dr. Andrea Löw from the Institute of Contemporary History at a trendy little waffle shop in the Prenzlauer Berg quarter of what was formerly East Berlin. She is 34, and she is the first person I tell that I am pregnant. I blurt it out, perhaps because we are surrounded, crushed in, by baby carriages; perhaps because she is only a year older than me; and perhaps because, as always when I start on a Holocaust project, I feel very conscious of my own Jewishness. I tell her I am growing a little Jew. I'm not sure she finds this amusing.
For Andrea's work, Valy's letters are just as important as any lists or new information she might come across at ITS. She thinks she might be able to include a few in a multivolume collection of wartime documents she is helping to compile—her hope is to use the voices of victims to humanize the stiff bureaucratic decrees that bloodlessly lay out, day after day, the orders to persecute and separate Jews from German society. She reads a few of my photocopies as we eat our waffles. They are fairly typical, she says, looking for visas, affidavits, for exit doors. But she also wonders how my grandfather handled the demands of dozens of cousins and friends, desperate and angry that he got out and they didn't? We talk about the moral ambiguities of the period: What did my grandfather owe these cousins and friends? Why didn't he take Valy with him? In the box of letters, I found receipts that showed my grandfather was in the process of paying down loans from national refugee committees in amounts so low he couldn't possibly have had any extra cash to send abroad. He was quite poor in Vienna to begin with—and, like many refugees, he arrived with barely enough to start his own life.
It's June in Berlin, and the city is blooming, warm and inviting and hip and cool. I'm eager to get going. I want to ask people about who Valy might have been and what she might have experienced. But I also want to know what the popular—and academic—expectations are for the Bad Arolsen ITS archives. I want to know, so to speak, whether there is anything in that bag for me.
Before I get to Arolsen, I have two stops to make. The first is to Wolfgang Benz, director of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, deep in former West Berlin. He was born in 1941, and when he is asked why he is a Holocaust historian, he parries with "Why do you use a pencil?" He is a pessimist, at best, about the public potential for ITS. He believes it is much ballyhoo about nothing—stirred up largely by misinformed Americans. "This was the campaign," he says, running his hands through wildly unkempt white hair. "The greatest archives of the Holocaust!" He makes his voice deep and mean, "And the Germans! The Germans! They will not show us! Terrible! Terrible! You must! It's garbage." He slumps back in his chair. The archives are just "lists," he tells me. Names and camps. It's good primarily—if not entirely—for archivists or historians. And for restitution cases. The only "scandal" of Arolsen, he says, is when the "82-year-old Ukrainian man" asks for compensation for being a forced laborer, and the archive staff is not fast enough with information to ensure he receives payment in his lifetime. Benz warns me that there was no way Valy survived her deportation. "January 1943?" He shudders. It was a terrible month—and year—to be deported. Still, "these archives are not of interest. Archives are dusty rooms for historians," he sighs. "What is the importance of an archive?"
The next morning, I board a slick Intercity-Express train for Weimar and then take a bus down what was once nicknamed the "Blood Road," to Buchenwald, the concentration camp 20 minutes outside the city of Goethe. I am visiting Volkhard Knigge, director of the camp memorial. We'd spoken by phone some years before, and I was curious whether the opening of the doors at the International Tracing Service had changed the permanent exhibition or the future direction of the sprawling memorial. A number of Holocaust scholars believe that ITS's great purpose will be to help create sites of memory, geographic locations that mark and explain where the Holocaust took place, especially now that the eyewitnesses are dying. There are hundreds of small former camp sites and sub-Kommandos (divisions of larger concentration camps) scattered across Germany and Poland. The material on the victims who passed through—and died—in these almost-forgotten locations is probably most complete at the archives in Bad Arolsen.
Knigge is dressed like an art-gallery owner—black jacket, black button-down shirt, black jeans, white hair. He teaches cultural studies and the history of memory in Jena. His wife, he tells me later as he drives me back to the train station, is an Israeli artist. Knigge rejects the idea that there is nothing at ITS. "There is material from all the camps," he says, as well as DP camp material and all the postwar trial materials. Before this year, he says, "more than 90 percent of the Buchenwald records were in Bad Arolsen. We could see meters and meters and meters [of documents], but we didn't have the right to look in. As historians, we had to find our ways to do research without Arolsen. … Most of the documents collected were personal documents. But we now have much more precise information about camp inmates, about transports."
One way around the ITS stonewalling was to go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. All Buchenwald's Jewish files were there as well, copies of the Bad Arolsen holdings taken as mimeographs in the early 1950s, before the ITS archives were closed. And yet Buchenwald's history is hardly just a Jewish one—the majority of prisoners were not Jewish.
Yet now that he's had a look inside, Knigge cautions that opening ITS doesn't mean rewriting the history of the Holocaust. Rather, "it is a bit like completing a mosaic: You had some stones before; now you have many more, and the picture becomes much more clear." He thinks there is more there for laypeople than Benz believes. "For survivor families, we can reconstruct much more precisely, with much more detail, the biographies of prisoners. And we know much more [about] how the concentration camps worked together; we know much more about transports."
He also has an answer to Benz's rhetorical question about the importance of archives. "I think archives are kind of … living monuments. They are more important than monuments. A monument is just a monument, a symbol. But an archive is an original authentic expression of what happened in history. It is, in a way, living history." He is very earnest, despite his generally dry demeanor. "It is something like a bridge to the past." He sees Arolsen as an important pedagogical tool—giving students new and tangible materials to understand people who existed and were extinguished.
I am eager to get there. At my request, the ITS has already pulled Valy's files as well as the files of a few cousins. I will find them on arrival.
BAD AROLSEN, Germany—For most of the hourlong journey, I was the only person on the train from Kassel to Bad Arolsen. It was, for all intents and purposes, a milk train, but since this is Germany, it was souped-up and sleek with a bullet nose. The train conductor and I passed through bucolic villages, miles of farmland, rolling hills, everything short of shepherds in lederhosen. I had spent the night before at the home of two academic friends—Uli and Urte—in Kassel. During World War II, as with most farming families who sent a man off to the front, the Reich gave Urte's family a forced laborer, a Russian, probably a POW from the Eastern Front, who was forbidden to socialize with the family. Years ago, Urte came across a photo of her grandmother's first husband (killed at the front) with the SS symbol on his collar scratched out.
Here is what it feels like upon entering the archives at Bad Arolsen: like a Steven Spielberg movie about an American lawyer of the 1950s, desperately searching for information on an escaped Nazi but with no computers, no modern technology, nothing but boxes and paper. It's like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie with the Ark of the Covenant tucked away in a warehouse. There might be treasures here, amid a sea of 65-year-old cardboard, but who would know?
To be fair, digitization is happening, slowly; 6.7 million documents on forced labor in the Third Reich were scanned this summer. But in the general documents alone—that means not the concentration camp rooms, nor the entire building devoted to files of displaced persons, nor the former schools that house the tracing and documentation files—there are 1,786 cardboard boxes filled with, among other things, documents on Heinrich Himmler's Lebensborn experiment (the quest to populate Europe with Aryan children using wombs from Germany to Norway and to kidnap children with Aryan features from Eastern Europe for adoption in the Reich), medical experiments, persecution outside of Germany, maps, court cases, letters between members of the SS, the institutional history of the tracing service, mass graves, and exhumations.
There are more than 16 miles of files, with faded, neatly typewritten labels. Book after book of death lists, held together with string. Typed documents explaining how, exactly, to turn a van into a murderous gas van. An entire maze of rooms devoted to millions of arbeitsbücher—little green books that document each forced laborer's time. The tracing and documentation files, which exist only in hard copy, are found a short drive off campus, in a former NATO driving school: dusty rooms filled with metal shelves stacked with loose reams of paper, piled in chronological order. Room after room with 1,000 files per shelf. About 3 million requests for information, 62 years of desperate pleas to find family members. "Unsolved," they are stamped; or "Auschwitz, no further information."
"When I am falling victim to routine," Udo Jost,the chief archivist, told me, "I take out folders to read, and then I am angry again. I need this furiousness to be committed." He drags on his cigarette. One year, the federal archive of Germany requested that Bad Arolsen begin microfilming and then destroying the original records. Jost lost his temper. "I say no! These are victims! They lost their names! They were given numbers! And in a few years, there will be no survivors, and then the victims will only be numbers!"
Jost has been at Arolsen since 1984. In December 2006, recognizing that the ITS situation had become a crisis, the International Committee of the Red Cross brought in one of its most decorated crisis-management stars, a Swiss man named Reto Meister, to replace the longtime director of ITS. Unlike Charles-Claude Biedermann, who spent two decades at the helm in Arolsen, Meister has never lived anywhere for very long. His career began in Baghdad in the early 1980s; it took him to Lebanon, El Salvador, Colombia, Israel, Angola, Sri Lanka—all during conflict. He was central to the ICRC's response to the 2004 tsunami. A negotiator by career and a linguist by training, Meister's appointment was acknowledgement from Geneva that ITS had failed at its task and in its responsibility to survivors—and that it had become a diplomatic black mark on the ICRC.
After countless hours of negotiations, over the next few years many of the documents on file here will be copied and transferred to the member countries of the international commission. But even this is political—there are battles as to which institutions in each country should receive the files. So far, it has been decided that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw will receive copies, but where else they should go is a point of contention. The process is slow going. To help accomplish that task, ICRC hired another newcomer, Irmtrud Wojak, a well-respected German academic. It was her job to begin converting what had been a tracing service into an archive. But it's difficult to keep smart staff in Bad Arolsen, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere: On Dec. 18, 2008, both Meister and Wojak announced that they were stepping down. Wojak took a post at the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, and Meister will head back to Geneva.
For its part, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum brought 16 scholars from around the world to Bad Arolsen for 10 days in June to take a core sample of the holdings and make recommendations for how to proceed. On my first day, I joined the scholars on a field trip to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a three-hour bus ride through that glorious countryside, to a modern cement block museum detailing the fate of prisoners and fields of mass graves that now look like nothing more than empty, grassy knolls.
Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a Parisian academic now teaching at the University of Manchester in England, told me on the drive that Marlene Dietrich's sister had lived in the town of Bergen. When the actress toured Germany after the war, her sister revealed that she had run a movie theater for the SS guards of the camp. Marlene never spoke to her again.
Dreyfus is the reason I'm in Arolsen to begin with—it was his work on the Paris camps that I wrote about in 2004—and it was Dreyfus who told me that the Holocaust museum was organizing scholars to come to Arolsen. "We need a very detailed inventory," he says of the archives. "For the moment, we don't know exactly what's new." He urges me to be cautious in my presentation of what the press labeled a scandal. "We don't know what was already available," he says, meaning what existed as copies in the archives of member countries. He continues, "There are probably treasures, but they have to be catalogued or inventoried." One of the problems with simply copying the material and sending it to institutions around the world, a proposal that has been floated by survivor organizations, is that the organization of ITS was so specific to its task—tracing individuals rather than looking at group history—that the material as it is currently assembled is hard for outsiders unfamiliar with the collections to analyze. It is too hodgepodge, too disconnected.
One of the other USHMM-sponsored scholars is a jocular Aussie academic (by way of Holland and Germany) named Konrad Kwiet. I tell him about my grandfather and Valy, and of my discomfort with my grandfather's inability to save her."I think one should not impose any moral verdicts on behavior," he cautions. Kwiet's parents split soon after the war ended; they had stayed together for its duration because suchMischehe or "mixed" relationships—mother Jewish, father Christian—could save the Jewish half of the couple. Kwiet is here for migration analysis— nearly 50 percent of Australia's large Jewish community descends from survivors.
"There are documents here of utmost significance, but it depends on the questions you ask the document," Kwiet tells me. We are sitting in a mediocre cafe across from the archives; I am perpetually hungry reading about starvation. "It's not a holy grail," he says, "but it will change the direction of research. It's not revolutionary—it's not Hitler's order to kill the Jews. But it will become a place of institutionalized memory."
And, yes, there are the lists. Jessica Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers and another invitee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is working on a dissertation about "voluntary" prostitution in the camps. We were sitting outside the archive's main entrance, taking in a moment of sun outside the dusty aisles of boxes. Using lists of prisoner numbers that she had come across in archives at the Dachau, Buchenwald, and Neuengamme camps, she was able to find the names of several dozen—non-Jewish—women forced into prostitution in the camps. "You read about the conditions at Ravensbruck, thousands of women crammed together, the latrines, it's a disgusting mess." "Volunteering" to be a prostitute gave a woman more food, real clothes, a place to sleep. At ITS, Jessica is able, for the first time, to begin constructing a real social history of prostitution in the camps. She will argue that prostitution was itself a form of forced labor.
In the communications office of ITS, there are several files waiting for me. There are my grandfather's cousins Manele and Chaja Wildmann, deported from Vienna in 1941 and killed in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, respectively. And then there is Valy. I feel a surge of irrational hope. Instead, I see her deportation date—Jan. 29, 1943, just as Yad Vashem had indicated—and I run upstairs to look for her name on the transport list. One thousand Jews left Berlin for Auschwitz that day; only 10 have death certificates. There is no further evidence of Valy's existence. She has no camp number. This means she could have died in transit, Dreyfus reminds me, or—just as gruesomely likely—been gassed on arrival. This was one of the last transits before the liquidation of the entire above-ground Berlin Jewish community, a series of deportations that began in February 1943 known as the Fabrikaktion, or factory action, because the Jews were swept from their factory jobs onto the trains. As for Valy, I know nothing more than I did before I arrived in Arolsen.
Except that there are several other files connected with Valy's. And because the number assigned to an individual's file remains the same from the first request until the last, I see that in 1956 a woman named Charlotte Ilse Mayer, nee Fabisch, requested information on Valy. That's because Valy appears to have married a man named Hans Fabisch—Charlotte's brother—in the last year of her life. He was 10 years her junior. The files give me a last-known address for them both and lists their crime—Jewishness. Kwiet assures me there must be a restitution file, issued on behalf of Hans' sister, requesting an indemnity payment for their deaths—and for this I must go back to Berlin.
BERLIN—More than half of Valy's letters were datelined "Bergstrasse 1, Babelsberg, Potsdam." But after the war, as with many German streets in both the east and the west, the street name changed. I took the regional train from Berlin to Potsdam and then hired a cab to take me out to what is now called Spitzweggasse. The villa Valy wrote from at Bergstrasse 1 was torn down after the war. It was located in what is now—and was then—a quiet, upscale suburb of large villas, a 10-minute drive from the tourist hubbub that makes historic downtown Potsdam an easy day trip from Berlin.
During the Nazi regime, Jews were expelled from the German social-welfare system, and in 1940, Bergstrasse 1 became a Jewish infirmary and "almshouse." Valy's mother ran the home, and in her letters Valy writes that she went there to recuperate from the various illnesses that plagued her as the decreased rations destroyed her immune system. On Jan. 12, 1943, all the Jews of Potsdam were gathered at the infirmary and sent to their deaths.
I read that there was a small memorial on the site. When we arrive, I see the street is a dead end, but the taxi driver and I were soon joined by a thirtysomething student and a sanitation worker, both of whom tell me that "if it's about Jews, it's long gone." No one quite believes me when I say that the street name was changed or that there was an infirmary here. But the driver, interested, perhaps, in someone willing to let his meter run, remembers that, peculiarly, he has a 1928 map of the city in his car, and with it, we confirm that this was, indeed, once Bergstrasse. With this odd stroke of luck, I am vindicated. In the end, it is the sanitation worker who finds the plaque, rusting and covered in lichen, in the ground. I added a stone to a small collection on top, and all the men went away feeling good that they had helped this strange American find this strange Denkmal, or monument.
Despite my disappointment with my personal discoveries at the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, I keep thinking back to Volkhard Knigge's commentthat the ITS archives are a kind of living memorial, a breathing, endless loop of representation, a witness of the individuals lost, forgotten, or displaced by the war. And of their relatives who wrote for decades—and, like me, are still writing. Open any door, any box in Bad Arolsen, and you'll find a macabre treasure—from the unjust (Ivan Demjanjuk's files that allowed him to escape to the United States as a refugee, despite having served as a prison camp guard) to the merely depressing—for example, the desperate letters of a French mother who wrote for a decade, begging the Red Cross to find her son. And then there are the casually racist: In one file concerning orphaned children, the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration headquarters warns the directors of the British-occupied zone about 1,000 minor-aged concentration-camp survivors to whom her majesty's government has agreed to provide safe haven. "A high percentage of the children are Jewish," the author writes. "We want to be sure this is understood by the British government."
Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe just down the street from the Brandenburg Gate is a sea of smooth steles made from concrete. It's massive and thoughtful, but I was more impressed by smaller memorials across Germany, theStolpersteine—literally "stumbling blocks"—a 14-year-old project of brass cobblestones hewn by Gunter Demnig, an artist based in Cologne, that are laid in the ground in front of houses to mark those deported from address after address. I found it enormously moving to leave a hip new noodle shop in the Mitte district and look down to see "Hier Wohnte … "—"Here lived …"
There are no stolpersteine in front of 43 Brandenburgische Strasse, the last Berlin address for Valy and Hans, her young husband, that I found in Bad Arolsen. But working with the landesarchive, the state archives, I confirm that No. 43 was a Judenhaus—the forced segregated housing that Jews were forced into in nearly every German city beginning in 1940. Fifty-four Jews were deported from Valy's building; 765 from her street.
By late 1941, even before the letters to my grandfather stop, the deportations from Berlin and other German cities had begun.
Valy probably understood that work considered important to the Reich would save a person faster than average factory work. So when she writes that she has lost job after job, this is a way of realizing that the walls are closing in. She teaches for a time in the Jewish Kindergartenseminar. When I tell that to Gudrun Maierhof, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the women of the Reichsvereinigung, the Jewish Council that controlled Jewish life in German cities during the Nazi era, she urges me to contact Inge Deutschkron, a local survivor who is a bit of a celebrity because of her work with schoolchildren and her postwar writing. She survived partly through the good deeds of a small-time Oskar Schindler named Otto Weidt (a man who deserves an article of his own).
Deutschkron spent a year studying at the school where Valy taught, but she tells me she doesn't remember Valy's name—or her face. She hates Americans, I quickly discover, and American Jews in particular: She thinks Americans don't care about survivors, only the dead. Maybe it's the pregnancy, but much to her annoyance, I end up crying in her apartment, which is, coincidentally, a block from Valy's in the Berlin neighborhood of Wilmersdorf.
I think Deutschkron is wrong. American Jews, and Americans in general, have always—in our perennial, frustrating optimism—focused far more on the exceptional stories, the survivors, rather than the norm: the dead. Part of what makes Valy's story so sad is its quiet normalness, like the lives most of us lead. She was erased by a system set up to do exactly that: to erase her. Finding her letters is like running one of those magic pens over invisible ink—some of it comes back into view.
Among my grandfather's papers, there is only one response from him, a draft of a letter he wrote to Valy in September 1941. "You could write a book," he tells her, "that begins, 'I want to report about a generation that has been destroyed by war, even if it could escape its cannons.' " But Valy didn't escape.
The Reichsvereinigung couldn't save its own workers. On one brutal day in October 1942, leaders of the Reichsvereinigung were told to assemble staff in the building of the synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse. Once inside, they were told to select 500 lower-level workers who were no longer "necessary" for work. "There was a terrible scene," Beate Meyer, an expert in the Reichsvereinigung, told me when I visited her at the Institute for the History of German Jews in Hamburg. "The head of the social welfare department," the woman who likely employed Valy, "had a nervous breakdown saying, 'Take me, take me, but not my staff!' And others refused [to choose]." Two days later, the Gestapo declared that for every person selected for deportation who tried to escape, one higher-ranking official would be shot. The Reichsvereinigung members themselves went to flush out those who had evaded the edict.
I had submitted applications to the Landesarchive and the Berlin indemnity offices, where the files on deported Jews who sought (or whose family members sought) postwar payments for their suffering were kept, hoping to receive information about Valy and her husband—and the restitution cases opened in their names in the 1950s and '60s. All victims filled out detailed property files so that the Nazis would be sure to loot everything that they had owned after deportation. Some of the information arrived long after I left Germany.
In October 1942, Valy and Hans were declared enemies of the state. Living in one room, they list practically nothing as possessions—two chairs, one bookshelf—but I'm struck by two items declared in her handwriting, things she had dragged from home to home for years: a red velvet couch and 50 books. All those books! Preserving her intellectual identity, I imagined, was a way of preserving her dignity.
There were nearly three months between Valy being declared an enemy of the state and her deportation. I don't know what happened during that time, though I talked to dozens of academics about why a person would—or would not—have gone into hiding.
Toward the end of my stay in Berlin, I took the S-Bahn train to Grunewald. The station serves the eponymously named pretty suburb-within-the city known for its large park. The S-Bahn 7 train rushes through every 10 minutes. But there is a third track, or "Gleis," that is easily overlooked, a macabre version of the magical Track 9 ½ in the Harry Potter series. Descending from the S-Bahn lines, signs indicate Westkreuz, back toward town, or Potsdam, in the other direction, and then there is Gleis 17. Ascending the stairs for 17, there are two long metal lanes, and a track that looks, at first, no different from any other. But the platform is cast from iron, and every two feet is a date, a number, and a direction. So it looks like this:
12.1.1943/1190 Juden/Berlin-Auschwitz. 12.1.1943 /100 Juden/ Berlin-Theresienstadt. 13.1.1943/ 100 /Juden./ Berlin-Theresienstadt.
It covers every deportation, lists the numbers and days on which each of the 55,000 Jews deported from Berlin were sent away from this very spot. More Jews left from Grunewald than from all of Belgium.
On Jan. 29, 1943—the day of Valy's deportation, 1,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, 100 to Theresienstadt. The tracks stretch out into the distance, covered with vegetation in places but still totally visible.
I was completely alone there, save for the little Jew inside me, and through the trees I watched the S-Bahn trains rushing back and forth a few yards away, the distance between normal life and terror just a few feet and 65 years.