It is an understatement that the Second World War had an enormously devastating impact on the civilian population of Europe. The impact, in human death toll alone, of the sheer and utter brutalities committed through Holocaust and other Nazi persecutions and war crimes, climbs beyond ten million people. Further, between 11 and 20 million people were displaced in the course of the war. Many of these individuals and families were inmates of Nazi concentration camps, forced labor camps, POW camps, and others who were uprooted due to fear of military campaigns, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Resolving this displacement was a complex, and often controversial process. One aspect was the establishment of displaced persons camps (DP camps) as early as spring 1945, the responsibility of which was eventually assumed with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in conjunction with military authorities. Eventually, this responsibility (and the responsibility for resettlement of displaced persons) fell to the International Refugee Organization (IRO). While this is not the venue here to explore all of the aspects and policies surrounding the post-WWII refugee crisis, it is important to note that the various intergovernmental agencies, military authorities, and other organizations created large volumes of records pertaining to the displaced individuals, and that a family historian can access this data.
How might a family historian research their family within these records? I am a member of Metro Detroit’s Ukrainian-American community; as an example, Ukrainians composed a large percentage of displaced persons in Europe, and thus many of our Ukrainian-American community have direct ties to those who were displaced persons, if not a DP themselves. The answer lies in the Arolsen Archives, located in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Formerly called the International Tracing Service (ITS), the archives are “…an international center on Nazi persecution with the world’s most comprehensive archive on the victims and survivors of National Socialism,” according to the Archives themselves. Founded first as the Central Tracing Bureau in 1944, the early mission of the organization was to trace missing persons, clarify the fate of individuals to provide such information to family members, and aiding in compensation/pension matters. Now, while this still comprises part of the mission, the Arolsen Archives focus now also on the research into Nazi persecution and education of society to Nazi crimes. The Archives hold approximately 30 million documents pertaining to about 17.5 million persons, on an inventory of 26,000 linear meters of documents, 232,710 meters of microfilm, and 106,870 microfiches. The holdings cover victims of all Nazi persecution and the Holocaust, as well as concentration camps records, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons and displaced persons camps (including IRO records).
There are several ways to research these holdings, and it is recommended that ALL methods are tried by the intrepid researcher. The reason is that while projects are underway to digitalize and make the holdings available online, many more still only exist in physical form. Further, since research requests are executed by individual archivists of these organizations, it is possible that unique documentation will be found by an organization, but not another (speaking from personal experience). Because of the monumental importance of the records, there is never a charge to access this data.
- Visit the Arolsen Archives online and search the online holdings: https://arolsen-archives.org/
- Submit a (free) research inquiry at the Arolsen Archives: https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/inquiries/submit-inquiry/
- Submit a (free) research inquiry at a partner organization. In the United States, the authorized organization to receive a full copy of the original ITS archive was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://www.ushmm.org/remember/resources-holocaust-survivors-victims/individual-research/services/getting-started
- Research the online Ancestry.com collection. First launched to the public in July 2019, the Ancestry Arolsen Archives Collection “…has been a multi-year project, culminating with the digitization of a total of 19.2 million records and 1.6 million images.” The Ancestry collection also contains another 9 million digital records from the French, British, and Soviet zones of occupation. The collection is available and searchable for free here: https://www.ancestry.com/cs/alwaysremember.
May we always remember the loss of those who perished in the terrible brutality of the Nazi regime and the Second World War, and may searching these records help shed light into the darkest period of human history. Good luck in the search!