The Arolsen Archives: Keeping Holocaust History Alive

Published by IranWire

Floriane Azoulay, director of an archive dedicated to documenting Nazi crimes, is used to dealing with harrowing material. But many of her stories from her eight years at the Arolsen Archives are also incredibly touching.

Take the story of Thomas Buergenthal, the famed Czechoslovak-born American international lawyer who passed away in May 2023. A former United States envoy to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and a former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Buergenthal was one of the most illustrious human rights lawyers. Many know his story as a survivor of the Holocaust and the notorious concentration camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, from where he was liberated in April 1945, aged just 11, by the Soviet Red Army.

Fewer people know the role that the Arolsen Archives, located in a sleepy small town in the German state of Hesse, played in his life.

“Thomas’s mother also survived the war,” Floriane Azoulay tells me in a conversation hosted by the Sardari Project, a joint initiative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and IranWire. “At the end of the war, she sent an inquiry to the International Tracing Service (ITS), explaining that she was looking for her son.”

The ITS is the former name of what’s now called the Arolsen Archives – International Center on Nazi Persecution. The name reflects the purposes for which the archive was established: “tracing” the fates of those who were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators and helping those who survived locate other survivors of wartime displacement. For many years the main users of these archives were not scholars or journalists, but people looking for information about their lost family members.

In Buergenthal’s case the trace was successful. The ITS knew that the young boy was in the care of Allied forces. “Thanks to the ITS, Thomas was reunited with his mom,” Floriane says. They settled in the German town of Göttingen before moving to the United States.

Decades later, the celebrated international lawyer came to visit the archives and consulted files on his own case, that of his mother, and his father, Mundek who had been killed in the camps just before liberation. Azoulay remembers the visit well – including a striking comment made by Buergenthal during the visit: “This archive is the only graveyard for my father.”

The stories Azoulay shared with me are now being published as a video on the IranWire platform as part of the Sardari Project. We spoke about the role the archives have played in countering Holocaust denial, also exploring the institution’s own evolving history and how, in recent years, digitization has helped many more people access its records.

At the time of its creation, the ITS was expected to be a temporary affair. In 1952, when the building that houses it was built, the plan was to convert it to a hotel after just a few years. But the overwhelming need for its vast records has meant that it continues to operate and is now a venerable institution, complete with an international commission including government representatives from Germany and ten other countries including France, Greece, Poland, the US and Israel.

The archives carry information on a staggering 17.5 million names. It includes not only administrative papers that document Nazi crimes, but also oral testimonies by survivors and families of victims. Holdings include personal belongings of Holocaust victims and survivors; for example, a pair of glasses belonging to someone imprisoned in a Nazi camp.

Many of the papers document the persecution of Jewish people and other communities targeted for elimination by the Nazis, such as the Sinti, and Roma. Documents are sometimes short and sparse. For example, for the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, the archives hold cards used for almost every prisoner listing only basic information like name and date of arrival.

But the documents also detail information on people caught up in the war in less typical circumstances. Such is the case for the dozens of Iranian citizens who, during research undertaken as part of the Sardari Project, we have identified in the archives; people exploited for forced labor, for instance, and the companies that profited from  them or the firms that, believe it or not, had insured this forced labor.

Finding specific human stories in this mountain of evidence requires patient “detective” work, Azoulay told me.

And she is not surprised that the records of many Iranians can be found in the archives. “There are really people from everywhere, including China, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Morocco and many other places,” she tells me.

One fascinating case Azoulay encountered was that of an anti-fascist resistance fighter in France. There were many such individuals, of course, but what makes this one special is the fact that he was Algerian.

“He was taken by the Nazis and was put in a camp,” Azoulay says. “We were able to return some of his personal belongings to his family and it was very moving for me to see this.”

“When you think of a resistance fighter in France, you think of people from villages who are rooted in rural areas and fighting in the woods and mountains,” Azoulay, who is also originally from France, says to me. “That’s how I learnt [this] history. But this man came from a very different place and fought for France.”

Since being appointed as the Arolsen Archives director, in 2016, Azoulay has done much work to modernize the institution. For her efforts, in 2021 she received the Prix de l’Académie de Berlin, an annual prize that celebrates those who work to foster closer relations between France and Germany.

Among her notable projects is an online hashtag campaign, #EveryNameCounts, designed to highlight the relevance of the archives to people around the world. Azoulay has also worked to make the archives digitally available.

“The demand is very high,” she tells me. “Eight years ago, nothing was online. Today we have millions of documents online and 1.2 million users per year.”

Almost everything at the archives has been scanned. Now the painstaking work of adding data from these papers to a searchable database is underway. This crucial work is done by staff, artificial intelligence, and international volunteers who, Azoulay says, “stay up at night to digitize documents.”

The archives are also part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World project, an international initiative aimed at safeguarding the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia. The Arolsen Archives thus stand as a collective effort to keep the memory of the Nazi crimes of the Holocaust alive – while also preserving the human stories of millions of people who were killed in this grand crime or affected by it in some way. All those who are interested in contacting Arolsen if they have questions about their own family can do so via this link.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *