BAD AROLSEN, Germany (JTA) – On index cards, letters and crumbling ledgers, a numbing 17.5 million names of those trapped in the Nazi camps and ghettos are held on rows of shelves.
The numbness cracks the moment a visitor shakes open a small brown envelope and the photos spill out: a wedding, a picnic, a passport. Out tumbles a ring from one envelope; an ID with a thumbprint falls out of another.
Since the end of World War II, some 2,300 such envelopes have been sitting at the International Tracing Service archive here gathering dust. They hold rare personal effects among millions of documents stored here. While Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington this month unveiled access to digitized documents from the massive Bad Arolsen archive, some of those rare personal effects are being reunited with relatives of their owners.
Sixty-three years ago, arriving prisoners at the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg deposited valuables in an envelope that was then inscribed with their contact information, as if the items would be returned. About half the 106,000 prisoners held in Neuengamme from 1938 to 1945 died.
Last week, the children and grandchildren of eight men who died at the camp arrived at Bad Arolsen from a small town in the Netherlands, Putten, and each family received an envelope.
Some had only an identification card inside, while others had photos. For some the envelopes contained the only belongings the descendants ever recovered from their lost relative.
One man, born a few months after his father was deported, had never before seen a photo of him.
“The German staff was crying together with the Dutch people,” said Pieter Decker, a member of the group from Putten.
Until recently, the Bad Arolsen archive was used solely to assist survivors or heirs to determine eligibility for compensation, or to help them find lost relatives. Inquiries have been made regarding nearly 3 million names.
For decades, historians had fought for access to the archive while Bad Arolsen digitized its documents.
Last year, the 11-member international commission that controls the tracing service finally agreed to grant that access. As it is digitized, the archival material is being released – documents relating to wartime incarceration and concentration camps – to museums in the 11 member nations.
All the documents, including material relating to forced labor and postwar documentation, should be digitized and available to the museums by 2010.
Two weeks ago, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial was the first to establish a service for processing requests for information. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington unveiled its service last week.
The archives’ Web site, www.its-arolsen.org, “provides access to regulations and the possibility for online requests for historical research,” said Reto Meister, the director of the International Tracing Service.
To digitize the archive – a job still under way – staff members wear protective gloves as they feed yellowing papers into high-tech scanners. Images appear within seconds on a screen and the originals are returned to their folders for filing.
Most of the material consists of forms the Nazis filled out as the people were deported from one concentration camp to another. Allied forces confiscated these records and created an archive to assist in tracing missing persons.
Prisoners’ arrival dates are noted. The lack of a departure date is a euphemism for death.
“Every page, every name is a life story,” said Maria Raabe, an archive spokeswoman. But “for a large number of people, we don’t know what happened to them.”
With all the attention to detail, why were the 2,300 envelopes containing personal effects never returned to the people whose names and addresses were printed on them?
In part, the problem was time. For decades the archive had been helping survivors qualify for compensation or find lost relatives, and the addresses on the envelopes were old, Raabe said. If one of the 2,300 names on the envelopes were mentioned in a query letter – a rare occurrence – the items were returned.
The most dramatic such case took place in September, when members of Foundation October44, which honors the memory of men deported from the town of Putten after Resistance fighters captured a Wehrmacht soldier, visited the newly opened archive.
Of the 589 local men who ended up in Neuengamme, only 49 came back.
“We hoped perhaps some personal effects would be” at the archive, said Decker, 48, who lost two great-uncles in the raid.
Almost everyone in Putten lost someone, he said. “It is an everyday topic. And there are still 10 or 12 widows and two or three survivors living there.”
The Dutch visitors searched the archive for information.
“We found the personal effects of five men,” Decker said. “Four had died in the concentration camp and one is still alive.”
After the visitors returned home, archive staff continued searching.
“We hoped for one person, and we found 22,” Decker said.
One of the first five packages was given to Nicole Dashorst, whose great-uncle, Leon Roos, was among the few Jewish deportees from Putten. Roos ultimately was among the nearly 8,000 prisoners killed in the British bombing of the German ship Cap Arcona days before the armistice.
Dashorst, 39, of Niew-Vennep, recognized a family photo on the October44 Web site. She contacted the foundation and eventually “somebody phoned me that pictures and other personal items belonging to him were found.”
In October she received the small envelope during the annual memorial ceremony in Putten. Inside was a wallet still bearing traces of paint; her great-uncle worked as a painter before being deported.
“There was a personal ID card with a picture and his fingerprint, and it is written where his scars were. It is very beautiful,” Dashorst said. “And there are four or five pictures with my grandma” – the only family member to survive.
Dashorst said she took the envelope home. “The first night, I slept with it,” she said. Now it is kept in a closet, out of reach of her two young children.
The one survivor to receive his own personal property, Jacob van Wincoop, 81, got back his ID card and wallet, and a note confirming that he needed his horse and wagon to deliver milk. It was signed by his father, who also was deported but never returned.
“It was not a lot that he got back, but he took it in his hands and didn’t let go,” Decker said.
Like Decker, Most descendants of the Putten deportees will never receive a thing.
“We have to tell them, no, there is nothing more in Bad Arolsen from your men,” Decker said. “But these 22 families who did get something, they are very grateful.”
The remaining envelopes will wait until another letter arrives, another inquiry, another request for one last sign of someone who never came home from Neuengamme.