Needles in the Haystack

We arrived in Bad Arolsen after dark. Only one other person got off the train with us at the small station and we followed him to the one taxi parked at the curb across the street. The taxi driver was happy to take both fares. As we drove through town, I noticed that everything was pretty well buttoned up for the night. When the taxi dropped us at the hotel, I had my doubts. There wasn’t one light on. The driver must have read my reaction and motioned for us to go around to the back of the building.

Dave and I stood in the dark and rang the bell. It took a few minutes and just before I suggested we sleep on the hotel porch, a light went on and a friendly woman appeared. Her English was worse than my German but we managed to communicate as needed. We went to our room and settled in for the night.

The next morning we were treated to a lovely breakfast – yogurt and muesli,  hard boiled eggs and cold cuts, cheese and brötchen (freshly baked rolls). The Hotel, Zum Hollander, was run by a Dutch family who were friendly, helpful, and accommodating. After we were pleasantly full we headed out to find the International Tracing Service (ITS).

The ITS was set up in the late 1940s in order to help find missing persons as a result of persecution and forced labor. For decades survivors of the Holocaust have turned to the ITS to find lost family members or, in most cases, find out the fate of their missing relatives. I went there looking for more. I knew the fate of the people I was researching. I wanted the details – Why? Why not? How?

The ITS has over 30 million documents and to date about 80% have been digitized. From what I had read about the ITS, I assumed that the people there would be unfriendly. I thought they would try to limit my access and make my search difficult. After all, they had been sitting on a gold mine of information since WWII and only opened their files to the public in 2007. I was anxious as we made our way into the building.

We signed in and met the archivist who was to help me with my search. His name was Martin. He was casually dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. He was friendly and patient and helped us understand how the documents were organized and how to use the finding aids to actually find something. The computer system there was confusing to say the least, but Dave and I persevered and were rewarded with a wealth of information. As a matter of fact, since we only had a day and a half set aside, I didn’t take the time to read and translate and understand each document. Many things I simply put in my folder to read later. We didn’t find everything I was searching for, but there was plenty that I hadn’t expected. When we were ready to leave, Martin downloaded my ‘save’ folder to a USB stick. At the end of this post you will find a few of my newly acquired documents.

One document I not find is the transport list from the date my grandfather was supposed to be sent to Auschwitz. I was hoping to be able to see a list with his name crossed out as he had been given last minute dispensation. I was hoping to figure out the exact date that he was facing death and escaped. I wanted to be able to place that chapter in my book in an accurate moment in time. But it was one needle in the haystack that I didn’t find. And, like some of my other unfound needles, it doesn’t really matter. The date is unimportant. What is real and true is that he was on a list, that he thought he would be sent to his death, and that he wept as he said good-bye to his wife and parents and young children.

Heinz and Margret zimerliste Th
A room list from Theresienstadt showing which barracks my grandparents (# 7 and #8) were assigned to
Ruth and Robbie Zimmerliste
This one is hard to read, but it is the barracks assignments for my mother and uncle in Theresienstadt
Flo Gestapo
This card tells me that there is a Gestapo file on my great grandmother located in the State Archives (more on this later)!

Published by K Heidi Fishman


2 thoughts on “Needles in the Haystack

  1. Hi Heidi
    This is really interesting learning about your research process and the connection to the story you were writing. Also the experience of being there and what information was most important to you in this process.
    We will read up on ITS as our family starts researching too.


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