German Holocaust archives 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BAD AROLSEN, Germany - George Jaunzemis was three and a half years old when, in the chaotic weeks at the end of the Second World War, he was separated from his mother as she fled with him from Germany to Belgium.
He grew up in New Zealand with no memory of his early years, unaware the Latvian woman who had emigrated with him was not his real mother.
Then in 2010, a letter from the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen changed his life. He discovered his real name was Peter Thomas and that he had a nephew and cousins in Germany.
"I was astonished, thrilled. After all this time, I was an uncle," Jaunzemis, 71, told Reuters. "You don't know what it's like to have no family or childhood knowledge. Suddenly all the pieces fitted, now I can find my peace as a person."
Yet it took Jaunzemis over three decades of tenacious searching to find the vast archive in this remote corner of Germany where his past was buried.
Bad Arolsen contains 30 million documents on survivors of Nazi camps, Gestapo prisons, forced laborers and displaced persons. It rivals Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust center and the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum in historical value.
However, many people are not even aware it exists. It was only opened to researchers in 2007 after criticism that it was being too protective of its material. Despite sitting on a mountain of original evidence, it is still struggling to get the attention academics say it deserves.
Last year just 2,097 people visited Bad Arolsen compared with the 900,000 who went to Yad Vashem.
Rebecca Boehling, a 57-year old historian who arrived from the United States in January, wants to change that.
"We're sitting on a treasure trove of documents. We want people to know what we have. Our material can change our perspective on big topics related to the war and the Holocaust."
The 25 kilometers of yellowing papers include typed lists of Jews, homosexuals and other persecuted groups, files on children born in the Nazi Lebensborn program to breed a master race, and registers of arrivals and departures from concentration camps.
It even has a carbon copy of Schindler's List, the 1,000 Jewish workers saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler.
The ITS still receives 12,000 inquiries a month and reunites up to 50 families a year, even though the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. This tracing work will continue.
Located next to a site where Hitler's SS officers once had barracks, Bad Arolsen was chosen for the archive after the war because of its central location between Germany's four occupation zones.