Tracing Hitler's dispossessed across a war-torn continent

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The Independent Online
NEXT MONTH 54-year-old Elizabeth Bytel will travel from London to America for a joyous meeting with a sister eight years her senior who, until last November, she never knew existed.

Elizabeth was born in England in 1944, daughter of Lena Cohen, a German Jewess who had come here as a wartime refugee. Little did she suspect that in 1936 her mother had given birth to another daughter, Ruth. The infant was given for adoption in America to save her from the Nazis, but Lena Cohen never revealed her secret. That it has finally been unlocked is due to a remarkable body called the International Tracing Service - data bank, clearing house and rebuilder of splintered families for victims of the Nazis.

But now that complicated brief may become more complicated still. The ITS, administered by the Red Cross, operates from the village of Bad Arolsen near Kassel in Germany. With a reference base of 47 million entries, covering 17 million people, it has grown over half a century to become the world's largest repository of knowledge on the devastations wrought by Hitler's Reich upon the populations of Europe. On Friday, in a meeting at the Foreign Office, the 10 countries which supervise the ITS agreed to open this storehouse to historians.

And, it will be asked, why not? But the Red Cross is uneasy. It fears first that this may interfere with its basic humanitarian work; and second, that a body for which neutrality is supreme will find itself a pawn in political controversies. These range from the dispute over Nazi gold in Swiss banks to the poisonous campaign that the Holocaust was not as bad as portrayed. The fact, for instance, that the ITS has documentary proof of "only" 500,000 Holocaust deaths has already allowed Hitler's apol- ogists to rubbish the figure of 6 million.And all this when the ITS is already busier than ever.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc opened up troves of information on the ghastliest era in modern European history, which left many millions dead or stateless and paperless.The once-mute lands now provide most of the 250,000 enquiries each year. The majority are from non-Jews, seeking not so much reunion with vanished family members, as proof theywere persecuted and thus entitled to compensation.

"We are working against time," says ITS director Charles Biedermann. "These are mostly old people, they may live in remote villages in Belarus or Ukraine. They don't speak a word of German; they can't even afford stamps to write to us." Every week, two ITS researchers set out to film documents and claims from the east. "When this started, we had such demand we went directly to collect 330,000 claims from Moscow, and 60,000 from Minsk."

So copious are its records that it now can answer half the requests. For Dachau and Buchenwald, it claims to have details of everyone who passed through them. But in the case of Auschwitz and other extermination camps, it is necessarily otherwise. "If you went straight to the gas chambers, the Germans kept no record," Biedermann explains. "That's why, say, if you know 1,000 Jews were sent on a train from France to Auschwitz, you'd only be able to trace 10 per cent of them afterwards. The other 900 were gassed."

Thus researchers must rely on the German mania for bureaucratic detail, for monitoring those who were not immediately slaughtered. "One camp commandant was so obsessed with headlice, he had weekly checklists," says a British Red Cross worker. "It sounds trivial - but for us, it's proof."

Even so it requires sleuthing of the highest order: the name Abramovitsch (or Abromowiets, Abrahamowies, Abranovic...), for instance, could be rendered 850 different ways. Sometimes there is no answer. Which only doubles the satisfaction when pieces match, as with Elizabeth Bytel and Ruth Cohen.

The Red Cross may seek to protect its treasury of knowledge on humanitarian grounds. But as the last survivors die, that excuse will fade. The historians, polemicists and lawyers are about to storm the ramparts of Bad Arolsen.