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Research Project on Effects for Relatives and the #StolenMemory Campaign as an Educational Project

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Anna Meier-Osiński studied the Cultural History of Eastern and Eastern Central Europe, Polish Studies, and Political Science. She is Head of the Tracing Department at the Arolsen Archives. Kamila Kolakowski was born in Chojnice/Poland and studied Translation, Linguistics and Cultural Studies. She works in the Public Relations Department of the Arolsen Archives.

The personal effects kept in Bad Arolsen are a special collection. In the 1960s, the ITS (today’s Arolsen Archives) received around 5,000 personal items, most of them belonging to former political prisoners who had been deported to concentration camps. The majority of these effects were seized by the British Army during the liberation of the Neuengamme concentration camp and were handed over to the ITS via the Administrative Office for Internal Restitution in Stadthagen. In addition to personal items from the Neuengamme concentration camp, the Arolsen Archives also hold a much smaller number of personal effects from the Dachau concentration camp and the Hamburg Gestapo, from the Amersfort police transit camp and the Compiègne deportation camp. In the years that followed, the ITS endeavored to return the effects to their rightful owners, often with the assistance of the worldwide network of Red Cross Societies and memorial sites. In subsequent years, only a few effects could be returned, and no active search activities were carried out by the ITS whatsoever. In 2009, the ITS carried out research on the collection of effects whose owners were unknown, with the result that it was possible to identify the owners of a large proportion of the effects, which could then be attributed correctly. In 2011, in a further attempt to support efforts to return the effects, a list of the names of the owners of the approximately 3,200 effects still held by the ITS at the time was published online. 

In the autumn of 2015, the collection of personal effects became one of the first three sub-collections to be made visible and searchable in the online archive of the ITS (see today’s online archive of the Arolsen Archives available at: https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/en/search/). It is now possible to search the pictures of the entire effects collection for names and, if available, dates of birth, as well as to filter the names by nationality and by place of detention. This functionality is intended to enable volunteers all over the world to help the Arolsen Archives search for the rightful owners and to attract the attention of the public to this special temporary collection. Publishing the collection online led to the successful return of many effects. This was made possible by the support of volunteers, most of whom were from the Netherlands at first. As a result of a Dutch TV news story about the online publication, two brothers were finally able to read a farewell letter from their father, which was “delivered” to them with a delay of more than 70 years. The story can be accessed at https://arolsen-archives.org/en/news/sons-receive-their-fathers-farewell-letter-after-72-years/.  

In the autumn of 2016, the ITS launched the Returning Effects project to help promote the search all over the world and return effects to the respective families. As part of this project, the ITS began to carry out systematic research in its own holdings and to document and evaluate the paths of persecution of the approximately 3,200 owners of the effects for the first time; information on places of residence and old addresses are particularly important here. Most of the victims of persecution were political prisoners: a large proportion of them (about 900 people) came from Poland, about 300 came from the former Soviet Union, about 680 from Germany, and there were over 50 from the Netherlands, from France, and from Spain, as well as from 30 other countries. Effects belonging to Jewish persecutees are an exception. 

The information contained in the documents held in the Arolsen Archives (such as transport lists, prisoner registration cards etc.) provides important clues as to how to begin the real-life search for the survivors themselves or their relatives. Within the last three years, more than 390 effects have been returned to close relatives, including daughters, sons, and grandchildren. This was only possible through external investigations and the support of various authorities, such as register offices located all over the world, through cooperation with memorial sites, especially in Poland and including the Auschwitz and Stutthof memorials, through the assistance of the international prisoners’ associations, and through the initiative of individuals in Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, France, Belgium, and Spain.

            Personal encounters with relatives frequently take place in Bad Arolsen when effects are returned in person, or in the relatives’ home countries, and often involve them travelling long distances from the USA, France, or Poland. These encounters emphasize just how important it is to find the next of kin, because the objects kept in the Arolsen Archives are mainly pocket watches, wristwatches, jewelry, wedding rings, personal documents like birth certificates, school reports, identity papers, correspondence, everyday items, and family photos, all of which are of inestimable value to the relatives. In many cases, these personal belongings function like a key that the relatives now hold in their hands, or like a trigger that helps people start to find out about their own family history. The effects and documents provide important information that can fill in the gaps in the life stories of their relatives or they function like jigsaw pieces in the reconstruction of paths of persecution which were often unknown or only partly known beforehand. Over 70 years have since passed and this period of time should not be underestimated. The same can be said of how important it still is for families to find out about the history of their relatives and, as is frequently the case, even to find closure by clarifying their fates. In many cases, the objects concerned are familiar to the children from their childhood. Items like a pocket watch that was taken out of a father’s waistcoat pocket on a Sunday and immediately rekindles childhood memories of a beloved father when it reappears 70 years after its owner’s murder. Only relatives have this kind of emotional knowledge and personal memories of the victims of persecution whose last personal belongings were taken away from them before their deportation to the concentration camps.

The research and the successful returns of effects which have taken place over the past three years have shown that searching and finding families in Eastern and Central Europe is not only about returning personal belongings to the families, but is also still inextricably linked to the clarification of fates. In many of the cases which the Arolsen Archives have researched in Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine and which resulted in contact being made with the families, often with the children of victims of persecution, nothing was known about the whereabouts of the missing relative, let alone about their path of persecution, for over 70 years – until their belongings were returned to their families. Moreover, because most of the victims of persecution did not survive – the effects belonging to Polish persecutees from the Neuengamme concentration camp include items belonging to a large number of individuals who burned to death on the Cap Arcona – most of the families do not even know where their loved ones are buried or where a memorial is located. Seventy years on, families are often now able to come to terms with the fates of their relatives, to visit their resting place, and light a candle for them. The documents containing information on the site of graves, for example, can be found in sub-collection 5.3.2, Attempted Identification. These documents were created between 1950 and 1951. However, this collection also contains many documents which had already been created in the latter half of the 1940s.


In the wake of the very successful research and return project, the ITS launched the #StolenMemory campaign in 2018. This ready-to-print exhibition tells the stories of the owners of the effects. The exhibition includes large-format posters displaying the names of the concentration camp prisoners and photos of the objects belonging to them. Focusing on successful searches that have culminated in the return of personal belongings, and highlighting what this means to the families, it also shows objects whose rightful owners the Arolsen Archives are still searching for, and describes the fates of the people who originally owned them. The exhibition has already been shown in Paris, Innsbruck, Kassel, Athens, Luxembourg and Venice. Exhibitions at various locations in Poland took place in 2019 (the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II), including two exhibitions in Oświęcim with a thematic and a geographical connection to the Auschwitz extermination camp and to people from the region who still have not been found. The collection of personal effects lends itself particularly well to using the regional connections of persecutees from specific places. Public searches for those concerned are then launched. These searches can be part of an educational school project, for example. 


Nearly 100 pupils from schools in Oświęcim attended the exhibition opening at the IJBS International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim/Auschwitz on 4 September, 2019. Cooperation with the International Youth Meeting Center is providing an opportunity to use #StolenMemory as an educational project: the young people involved will attend a number of seminars where they will be able to work with the biographies and the documents, research the fates of people from their own region, and look for their traces. Perhaps they will even manage to find more families. The initial results of the search efforts will be presented in March 2020.

From 9-10 September 2019, the Arolsen Archives took part in the History Forum of the DPJW (the German-Polish Youth Office) in Gdansk. Those invited to attend included memorials and educational institutions from Germany and Poland as well as teachers and others who work in the field of education and organize youth exchanges for young people in Germany and Poland. The Arolsen Archives ran a number of workshops presenting the potential of the #StolenMemory campaign for use in educational contexts. Participants were then given the opportunity to research the fate of a specific person for themselves: they searched the online archive of the Arolsen Archives for documents on Waldemar Rowiński, a 17-year-old Polish student who was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He died in the bombing of the Cap Arcona passenger ship. Among other things, the Arolsen Archives still have his school reports and his student ID card. They also have documents about his imprisonment and the cause of his death. The participants then used this information as the starting point for further research and were amazed by the many connections they found and by the results that emerged in a very short time: “I learned something about the Polish school system along the way” – “Now I know what the Cap Arcona shipwreck was all about” – “I know more about the first transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp now” – these were just some of the reactions.

In 2020, the #StolenMemory campaign will be one of the focal points of the German-Polish projects run by the DPJW, starting with a kick-off seminar at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim/Auschwitz at the end of January 2020. As part of the “Wege zur Erinnerung” (Paths to Remembrance) program, interested teachers and educators can apply for a grant to participate in the project, which will focus primarily on working with biographies and paths of persecution. 

This article is an abridged and revised version of the following text: Ramona Bräu, Kerstin Hoffmann, Anna Meier-Osiński: The New Tasks and Challenges for Tracing. In: Henning Borggräfe/Christian Höschler/Isabel Panek (eds.): Tracing and Documenting Nazi Victims Past and Present (Arolsen Research Series # 1). Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg 2020: https://www.degruyter.com/view/product/534147 (due to be published in June 2020).


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