A family reunited, 67 years on

A tracing service set up after the war still has work to do

Bad Arolsen, Germany

For most of his 71 years, New Zealander George Jaunzemis suffered the trauma and perpetual, nagging uncertainty of never knowing who he really was. He did not know his mother, his real name or where he was born.

At the age of four, in the chaos of post-war Belgium, he was separated from his parents and taken to the other side of the world to be raised as the supposed biological child of a woman who pretended to be his mother. "I always suspected it," Mr Jaunzemis recalls today, "she just didn't behave like a mother. She was distant, and never hugged me."

George Jaunzemis was right to trust his gut feelings: in truth he was born Peter Thomas in the then Nazi German city of Magdeburg in 1941. His German mother, Gertrud, had committed the crime of falling in love with a Belgian forced labourer called Albert van der Velde and his existence had to be kept secret. When the war ended Gertrud and Albert married and moved to Belgium with their son. But Gertrud had no entry permit and, being German, she was sent to a detention camp where she was instantly separated from her son. George ended up being cared for by a 46-year-old Latvian woman called Anna Rausis who eventually abducted her charge and took him to New Zealand, later changing her name to Jaunzemis. For years, George's parents, Albert and Gertrud van der Velde, searched for their son. But they never found him.

George Jaunzemis began searching for his real identity in 1978 after Anna died. His quest took him back to Europe. He settled in Latvia in 2000 and intensified his efforts, but by the end of the decade he still did not know who his real mother was. In desperation, he turned to the International Tracing Service (ITS), a body run by the International Red Cross and located in the sleepy central German town of Bad Arolsen. It contains the world's largest archive of documents on the Holocaust and the millions who were separated from their families through the concentration camps and the Nazi slave labour programme. "The ITS was my last port of call," Mr Jaunzemis says.

With the help of its vast archive, staff at the ITS were able to establish George Jaunzemis's true identity. Although both his parents are now dead, in May last year he met two cousins and his nephew for the first time. Finally, his seemingly endless uncertainty was over: "I am happy to have a family even though it still feels a bit strange, so much time has been lost," he says.

More than 67 years after the end of the Second World War, the ITS is still reuniting families torn apart by the conflict. The average is between 30 and 50 cases a year. The organisation also receives about 1,000 inquiries a month from people trying to find out what happened to relatives lost during or after the war. "Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the majority of inquiries have been from people in former Eastern Bloc countries who became separated from their relatives by the Iron Curtain for the duration of the Cold War," Kathrin Flor, an ITS spokeswoman, said last week.

But the role of the ITS will undergo a sea change at the end of this year when the Red Cross ceases running the organisation after 57 years. What until only recently had been the world's biggest "hidden" archive on the Holocaust and the devastating effects of 12 years of Nazi rule will become a vast reservoir of untapped documentary evidence available to historians worldwide. Jean-Luc Blondel, the ITS's departing Red Cross director, will hand over to an American Holocaust expert, Professor Rebecca Boehling.

The ITS was set up in a former Nazi SS officers' training school in Bad Arolsen in 1945 because it was one of the few buildings left with fully functioning telegraph lines and because it was almost slap in the middle of occupied Germany. But, since then, the availability of the information contained in its records has been restricted by statutes overseen by a commission made up of representatives from 11 countries. These made individual privacy paramount, and ensured that information was given only to ITS staff and prosecutors in Nazi trials.

The process of fully opening the files to researchers began in 2007 after decades of pressure from historians and Holocaust survivors. But, under its new management, the ITS's role as a historical archive will be stepped up from next year. The prospect is as fascinating as it is daunting. The ITS presides over some 15 miles of files and other documentary evidence; much of it is yellowing and in such a state of decay that it is currently being digitalised by specialist staff working flat out.

The documents amount to 15 miles of recorded human suffering and unimaginable cruelty. They even include a carbon copy of Schindler's list, typed by Mieczyslaw Pemper, a Holocaust survivor who helped draw up the names of the 1,100 Jewish workers saved from the death camps by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler.

The records begin with little red "Protective Custody" arrest warrants issued by Heinrich Himmler's Gestapo soon after the Nazis were elected to power in 1933. They show how unwitting individuals were denounced by their neighbours for "failing to hang out the Swastika flag" or for making jokes about the Führer Adolf Hitler, and how they were instantly dispatched to the concentration camps for such transgressions.

Documentary evidence of concentration-camp life is contained in decaying school exercise books used by guards to record even the number of lice found on each inmate. List after list of towns and villages in Germany show how inmates in prison uniform were sent around the country to perform forced labour. Mile upon mile of slave labour documentation show the utter dependence of the Nazi war machine on foreign workers.

The records end with harrowing accounts of extermination-camp survivors who were taken on forced "death marches" during the last days of the Second World War. Eric Hitter was one of them. A 17-year-old Romanian Jew who had been sent to Auschwitz, he survived the death march away from the camp only because two inmates grabbed his arms and stopped him collapsing from weakness. All those who fell to the ground were shot instantly.

Susanne Urban, head of research at the ITS, met Eric Hitter last year. "It is something that will stay for me for the rest of my life. It was heartrending. I spent five hours talking to him and we ended up holding hands," she said. She said that her meeting with Mr Hitter was the inspiration behind her passion for promoting and publicising the lessons the vast ITS archive now has available for posterity.

But Bad Arolsen will continue to help lost souls like George Jaunzemis. After meeting his relatives for the first time, he is now considering reverting to the name he was born under: "My friends already call me Peter," he says.

George Gidney and Howard Jones (2009)

In 1945, prisoner-of-war George Gidney was near death. Certain he wouldn't survive, he gave his logbook recording four years in PoW camps to his friend Canadian Flt Lt Howard Jones, and asked him to return it to his family. Jones went to Gidney's Middlesbrough home, to find it had been bombed. Believing Gidney dead, Jones returned to Canada. In fact, Gidney had been rescued and returned to the UK. And, in 2009, the Red Cross traced George Gidney's daughter, and Jones's daughter, Maureen Manningham, was able to return the logbook.

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