The International Tracing Service (ITS): Find the stories for Post-WW II Displaced Persons

Did your parents or grandparents immigrate to the United States shortly after WW II? If so, they probably told you stories of staying in one or more of the refugee camps at the end of the war. The Allied forces established these camps to handle the masses of displaced persons coming from the German work camps or death camps, or post-war who fled their homes to escape communist rule.

Were your ancestors willing to tell you about their lives during and after the war, or did they avoid telling you these stories? The International Tracing Service may be able to help you find some of these details. They had the task of saving the refugees’ documents and giving us hope of completing their stories.

The work of tracing refugees began in 1943 when the Headquarters of the Allied Forces asked the British Red Cross to set up a registration and tracing service for missing persons. In 1944, The Red Cross gave the work to the newly created Central Tracing Bureau. The Bureau initially worked out of London but then moved to Versailles. Later it moved to Frankfort am Main and then to its current location in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Finally, in July 1947, the International Refugee Organization (ICRC) took over the Bureau’s administration and changed the Bureau’s name to International Tracing Service (ITS) in January 1948.

ITS collects and controls the documents, information, and research on Nazi persecution, forced labor, and displaced persons. The archive in Bad Arolsen contains about 30 million records from concentration camps, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons. The archives have been accessible to researchers since 2007. Requests for information from individuals or descendants can be made by mail or on the ITS website (Home Page – https://arolsen-archives.org/en/). In 2015, ITS began adding records to an online database and today has over two million records in an online searchable collection of documents. Family historians should search the online archive at https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/ to confirm their ancestors are in the archive. The results will show one or two documents but not the complete file. Use the inquiry page (Arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/inquiries/) to request the entire file. Be patient because the average delivery time for the files is about four months and can take as long as eleven months.

The original goal of the authorities at the refugee camps was to repatriate the refugees to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. Authorities soon changed their strategy after reports of mistreatment of refugees who returned to communist countries, which caused a growing resistance of the refugees to return. Immigration to western countries became the new destination 

In late 1947, Belgium became the first country to adopt refugee immigration and accepted nearly 22,000 people. The United Kingdom accepted 86,000 refugees, in addition to 115,000 Polish army veterans who resettled in England and 12,000 former Ukrainian members of the German SS. By 1951, Canada had accepted 157,687 refugees, Australia took 182,159 refugees, and France accepted 38,157 displaced persons. In addition, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina accepted almost 80,000 refugees.

From the end of the war to 1948, nearly 50,000 refugees had entered Palestine (many illegally due to immigration restrictions).

The United States was late accepting displaced persons, and then only after considerable lobbying for a policy change. There was significant opposition in the U. S. Congress to taking Central and Eastern Europeans and Jews. Nevertheless, President Harry S. Truman signed the first act in June 1948, allowing entry for 200,000 refugees, followed by the second act in June 1950, allowing entry for another 200,000. The American program was the largest and most idealistic of the Allied programs but also the most bureaucratic, which required a sponsor and the promise of a job. Charitable organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation and ethnic groups, undertook much of the humanitarian effort.

ITS has a wealth of information in the documents that could add to your family history. The information will identify the camps where your ancestors lived. It may list their occupations, residence before entering the camps, birthplaces, and jobs while in the camps. Research the history of the camps to add background information about where they lived.

Pay attention to the details which you may have to translate. The details will reveal the picture of your ancestors’ struggles to survive after the war and how they rebuilt their lives. The details will also give you insights into the character you see in them.

Save their stories and honor their memory.

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