By the end of World War II, millions of people had been murdered or displaced by war and genocide. Families and communities were torn apart. Many were missing, and some people’s fates remain unclear to this day.
Confronting immense logistical challenges, a number of charities and agencies such as the British Red Cross Society and the Jewish Relief Unit, attempted to help find missing people and to reunite families. Their efforts came together in what became known as the International Tracing Service (ITS). This exhibition tells the remarkable, little-known story of the agonising search for the missing from the perspectives of Jews and others who survived Nazi persecution, as well as the institutions created to facilitate searching. The exhibition considers the legacy of the search for descendants of those affected by World War II, and the impact of fates unknown.
At war’s end, millions of people were somewhere other than where they wanted to be.
For Jewish survivors, especially those from Eastern Europe, the future was uncertain. The search for family members and friends drove many to return home, even in defiance of military efforts to control the movement of people. When some did reach home, they found their communities destroyed and family missing. They often faced hostility and violence.
“I almost despaired at the seemingly endless difficulties; information written on dreadful old scraps of paper in a dozen languages…. Thousands of people wanted to know whether we had found any trace of this or that missing relative or friend.”
Evelyn Bark CMG OBE, British Red Cross
Allied militaries faced daunting challenges. They needed to aid Displaced Persons (DPs) and help relieve disease and hunger. They aimed to regulate the movement of people so that military operations could continue. They tried to repatriate as many people as possible.
For a time, these goals were prioritized over finding missing people and reuniting families, even though military forces received many requests to find the missing.
Several charities and organizations tried to help within post-war occupied Europe and beyond. With no central authority in place, relatives approached as many organisations as possible with information about the last known whereabouts of family members.
International cooperation among charities and other bodies was key to facilitating tracing efforts. Some Displaced Persons arranged search organisations and compiled lists of survivors. Relief organisations, such as the Jewish Relief Unit, tried to help. authorities recognised the need to centralise search efforts, which often duplicated activities or worked at cross purposes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) seemed to be the natural agency to take responsibility for tracing after the war. However, its ‘neutral humanitarianism’ was at odds with the Allies’ insistence that the Central Tracing Bureau would not deal with German POWs or civilians – this would be the task of the German Red Cross. The Allies prioritised repatriating Displaced Persons, which was officially outside of the ICRC’s remit.
Administration of the International Tracing Service
The Central Tracing Bureau (in 1948, renamed the International Tracing Service) had been administered by different institutions since the end of the war. In 2012, the ICRC resigned from managing the ITS, because the ITS had expanded from processing tracing requests to include opening its archives for research, education and commemoration. The German Federal archives is the institutional partner of the ITS. The ITS is overseen by an International Commission, including representatives of the United Kingdom.
Moving Towards Centralisation
After the war, military authorities aimed to control searching to regulate the movement of refugees. They also wanted to track and limit information that was being shared across borders. The Cold War was developing. The Soviet Union withdrew its cooperation in central tracing when it realised Soviet citizens were permitted to resettle in western countries on political grounds.
The Central Tracing Bureau (CTB) coordinated initiatives among national and zonal tracing offices by July 1945. The CTB was the predecessor to the International Tracing Service. Lists compiled by various charities and organisations were gathered by the CTB and used in its tracing work.
Gathering the Names
Tracing bureaus collected documentation related to the last known whereabouts of individuals. Evidence not destroyed by the Germans, such as documents from concentration camps, hospitals and factories, was repurposed for tracing work. To this were added Displaced Persons’ registration records and census lists compiled by different organisations, like the World Jewish Congress. Mass broadcasts over radio issued immediately after the war were another method for locating people.
Surviving documents were not always accurate or complete. Many victims and survivors shared the same name or spelt their name in numerous variations. Moreover, many had given false names and ages upon entering the camps or to liberating authorities.
Collecting documentation and facilitating searches in the field were two major logistical challenges. After the zonal offices were dissolved in the early 1950s, the focus shifted to searching for individuals based on the documents collected.
Case Study #1: Gita Esther Nussbaum
Gita Nussbaum was born in Liepãja (then Libau), Latvia on 2 March 1933. From about 1936, she was in the care of her aunt and uncle, Sophie and Noah Heiden, in Liepãja. After the war, her parents, who had survived with her older sister in Corsica, searched for her.
Her fate remains unknown.
Identifying the Unknown Dead
The Allied authorities issued an order in October 1945 to all mayors across Germany ‘to discover, register and eventually concentrate into separate national cemeteries, all Allied graves’.
Fieldworkers set out to check graves and retrace the steps of concentration camp inmates who had been sent on forced marches (often called death marches).
Fieldworkers compiled summaries and hand-drawn maps identifying the location of ‘unknown dead’ and grave sites. They collected witness statements from those who saw the ‘death marches’. These investigations continued until 1951.
The investigations formed part of the materials the CTB (later, the International Tracing Service) used to trace missing persons.
Establishing the death of an individual had legal repercussions. Some missing persons had property and assets to which their heirs were entitled. Widows could not remarry and orphans could not be adopted until the death of spouses or parents were confirmed.
In April 1950, the United Nations Convention on the Declaration of Death of Missing Persons established a procedure to obtain a declaration of death for missing persons.
‘In the best interests of the child’
‘Six years in Germany is a long time in the life of a child, especially when he is taught to forget his past to learn new ways.’
M. Jean Henshaw. ‘UNRRA in the role of foster parent’, for The Zontian, October 1946.
Tens of thousands of children became separated from their parents or orphaned by the end of the Second World War. Approximately 150,000 Jewish youth survived in liberated Europe.
Too young to decide
Among the children who found themselves alone (‘unaccompanied’) at war’s end were those who had survived concentration camps and children of foreign forced labourers. Parents searched for children who had been kidnapped by German authorities because they had been considered ‘racially suitable’ and ‘Germanised’.
The Child Search Branch was a special office of the International Tracing Service. It launched the Limited Registration Plan, a programme to check German foster homes, orphanages, hospitals and local records for missing children. Bereft parents submitted tracing requests, which the Child Tracing Section handled.
Through its field work, the ITS identified thousands of children who, in their opinion,belonged somewhere else, usually with their biological parents. The decision to remove a child from foster care was not easy and fraught with ethical and emotional challenges.
The wishes of the children did not always match those of their carers. Many children were too young to be able to tell aid workers who they were, or could no longer recall their lives before the war. Some had grown attached to their foster parents and did not wish to return to their biological families. Some children dreamed of joining the Bricha, the underground effort to help Jewish survivors escape post-war Europe for Mandate Palestine.
Case Study #2: Ludwig Stein (Gasparik)
A Czech boy of 15, Ludwig described his harrowing experiences to relief workers after the war. His parents had both been interned in Buchenwald and died. He was desperate to emigrate to the United States where he had relatives.
Ludwig’s case file reveals his fragile emotional state. The relief workers found it difficult to care for him, and their resources were stretched. It turned out that Ludwig falsified his wartime story. He claimed to be Jewish so that he could get help to go to the United States. According to postwar testimony, Ludwig managed to get to Italy with IRO aid and then on to Palestine.
While children may have altered their biographical details to meet IRO rules, the majority of child cases were not fabricated. Ludwig Gasparik’s case reveals the psychological impact of war on children. It also shows the IRO review board’s complex, imperfect process of evaluation. The IRO’s determination of ‘eligibility’ often directed the fates of children.
Case Study #3: Lázár Kleinman
Lázár Kleinman was born on 29 May 1929 in Ambud, a small village near Satu Mare, Romania, into an Orthodox Jewish family of eight children. After Hungary occupied Northern Transylvania in 1940, his family’s life was brutally upended. In 1944 his father was deported and he and his family were put into a ghetto. From there they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After surviving several camps, Kleinman was found by the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) after the war and placed in the Kloster Indersdorf children’s home.
Mr Kleinman was recognised for his service to Holocaust education in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List. He spoke at the Library as part of it’s Fate Unknown exhibition series, where he talked about his experiences during the Holocaust, his story of survival, and learning about the fate of his family after the war. The recording of his talk is available below:
Legacies of Fates Known and Unknown
The search for the millions of people who went missing after the Second World War continues today. Institutions such as The Wiener Library, the International Tracing Service (Germany), the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USA) and Yad Vashem (Israel) help people discover the fates of their relatives by navigating through documents and other traces of evidence left behind.
Documentary evidence of persecution, where it exists, assists with claims for compensation, stolen property and other assets. Yet scattered records around the world mean that a search can take months, years and decades.
In many cases, no relatives or descendants remained alive to carry on a search for the missing. Entire communities were destroyed.
These stories remain untold.
Searching at The Wiener Library
The Wiener Library helps visitors find information on the fates of their loved ones using the UK’s digital copy of the International Tracing Service (ITS) archive and other records in its collections. In rare cases, relatives are reunited or find descendants they never knew existed.
The ITS archive is vast. Yet it is only a fragment of the entire documentary record on the persecution of Jews and other victims during the Holocaust.
An exhibition catalogue featuring photographs and documents from our collections, case studies featured in the exhibition, and the history of the International Tracing Service archive is available to purchase at our Library’s reception desk, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
This exhibition was co-curated by Dr Christine Schmidt for The Wiener Library and Professor Dan Stone, Holocaust Research Institute, Royal Holloway, University of London, with extensive support from the International Tracing Service.
We are thankful for the support of the Royal Holloway Research Strategy Fund, the Leverhulme Trust, the German History Society, and the Library’s Friends and supporters, which make its work possible. With special thanks to Elise Bath and Dr Susanne Urban for their assistance.
Special thanks to Serena Dwerryhouse for the creation of this online exhibition.
Fate Unknown: The Search for the Missing After the Holocaust
Exhibition Type: Online Exhibition