Arolsen Archives

We talked quite a bit about possible sources for records when the Kitchener project began, but the recent arrival of a particular set of materials has reminded me that it’s been a while, and not everyone will have read as far back as those early notes and thoughts. There have also been some updates since then.

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The materials kindly sent in over the last week are from the Arolsen Archives – until recently called the International Tracing Service (ITS) – which themselves have undergone significant change since the Kitchener project began almost two years ago. Not least, around 13 million of Arolsen’s records have now been digitized and are searchable online (https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/en/search/). They have also produced a fantastic ‘explainer’ section on their website to help families understand the archival cards and records – https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/additional-ressources/e-guide/.

As you know, from around 9th to 11th November 1938 a majority of the men who were soon to be the Kitchener refugees were rounded up and incarcerated either in local/regional prisons or – on the whole – in one of three large concentration camps – Dachau, Buchenwald, or Sachsenhausen. (I sincerely apologise that I’ve not had time to put up information about the latter, but I will do so later this year …)

The Kitchener rescue was specifically set up by the Central British Fund to rescue the ‘November Jews’ (incarcerated during Kristallnacht, as it’s still sometimes called).

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Kitchener camp, Richborough, Max Metzger, KZ Dachau - Record card, ITS Documents from the Wiener Library
Kitchener camp, Richborough, Max Metzger, KZ Dachau – ITS record card
ITS record kindly submitted by Max’s family and reproduced here with the permission of the Wiener Library

If you have not yet applied to Arolsen Archives to see whether they have records of your father/grandfather’s arrest and imprisonment in November 1938, you may wish to consider it.

As with many archives in this area, there tends to be a bit of a delay in responding because so many people are making these kinds of enquiries.

The link for relatives to apply for information to Arolsen Archives is here:

https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/inquiries/information-for-relatives/

If you are looking for records about your Kitchener relative, this can be a good place to start. It is also worth making an enquiry with Arolsen about missing members of your family from the National Socialist period.

If you live in the UK, you may want to get in touch with the Wiener Library instead – they are a license holder for the ITS database: https://www.wienerlibrary.co.uk/ITS

If you’d like to know more, Elise Bath of the Wiener Library will be giving a workshop for Kitchener descendants at our exhibition on 1st September at the Jewish Museum in London.

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It is as well to begin with an understanding of what Arolsen may have records on, and what they won’t, so I’ll do my best to explain its remit here – broadly, in the terms in which it was explained to me a few years ago.

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Arolsen Archives holds tens of millions of records on around 17.5 million people.

Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018
Copyright Clare Weissenberg

A sobering statistic.

This is both a vast number of records about a vast number of people, yet it is also an incomplete account of the Shoah.

Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018
Copyright Clare Weissenberg

There are many reasons for this incompleteness – not least of which is that the National Socialists destroyed huge quantities of materials when it became apparent that they would lose the war. Allied bombing raids and fires also destroyed many buildings in which records were stored.

Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018
Copyright Clare Weissenberg

There is another reason why a particular person’s records may not appear in the Arolsen database, which goes something like the following.

If a person was in a labour camp for some period of time – records would have been generated: entry to the camp, lists of belongings, medical records, and so on. These records may have been destroyed, but they would have been created at some point in the system.

If a person was one of the hundreds of thousands deported to the killing centres of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka, Chełmno, Bełžec, or Sobibór, for example, they did not enter areas where records were taken. They were, on the whole, sent straight to their deaths.

Therefore, in a majority of cases, there will be no records of these people having being in the camps. There might be a record of the transport to the camp, but that is probably about all.

Many people find it difficult to encompass the idea that something so vast, so organised, and so well-documented in many ways has failed to document our individual cases, but – this is the situation as we find it today.

It’s hard, I know, to have neither gravestone nor record, which may be part of why we have a drive to record and to document whatever is left.

Dachau entry book, recording the arrival at the camp of Kitchener refugee Werner Weissenberg

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In addition, if a person was not deported to a specific camp but, for example, shot in a forest or on the edge of a ravine, there will be no record of their deaths in Arolsen Archives.

In other words, Arolsen has documentation only when someone appears in the logging systems of the National Socialist state. And as I said, even many of these records no longer exist.

Max Metzger - KZ Dachau card - listing name, prisoner number, and date of release
Max Metzger – KZ Dachau – listing name, prisoner number, and date of release
Kindly submitted by Max’s family and reproduced here with the kind permission of the Wiener Library

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For many of the men arrested in November 1938 there will be a small number of documents in Arolsen Archives.

They may also have a postwar trail of documents generated by the refugees themselves when they were trying to find their relatives and to make claims for some level of financial restitution.

In practical terms, this trail can be useful because of the information given about searches carried out through the Red Cross, the American Joint Distribution Committee, and similar organisations in the immediate postwar years. It may outline family names, addresses, dates, and so on, which may help people today in their search for genealogical information.

Werner Weissenberg – KZ Dachau – listing name, prisoner number, and date of release
Visit to Arolsen Archives, Winter 2018

Finally, the recent materials sent in about Max Metzger very helpfully provide the date on which he arrived at Kitchener camp – 13 July 1939. Thus, while we began with a set of documents that added much to our understanding of Max’s incarceration in Dachau KZ, in fact these materials also give us a single invaluable piece of refugee information, in giving us one more arrival date to add to our understanding of the Kitchener history.

Kitchener camp, Richborough, Max Metzger, ITS Documents from the Wiener Library, "Lager (camp) in England" from 13 July 1939 to 18 December 1939
Kitchener camp, Richborough, Max Metzger, ITS Documents from the Wiener Library, “Lager (camp) in England” from 13 July 1939 to 18 December 1939, Dated 1 October 1952

Through one small piece of information at a time, we are patiently building up a history that was all but lost to us.

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Interesting! Having gone to Phineas May‘s diary – as I do whenever we get an arrival date – to put Max’s name into it, I realised that the date on which he arrived is slightly unusual in that we now know a number of the men who arrived on 13th July 1939.

See screenshot below.

It’s also one of the times Phineas mentions an arrival – here of “86 men from Germany”.

So – we now know that some of these 86 men were Richard Cohn, Lothar Nelken, Herbert Nachmann, Samuel Goldstein, Hans Friedmann, Max Metzger.

Hmm – now did these men have anything else in common? So far – we have no answer to this, other than the fact they were German rather than Austrian, but – time may tell us more…