For Harry and Thea Lindauer, the drive home is always hard.
The Annapolis couple work several hours each week as volunteers at the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center in Baltimore. The requests for information they handle are often filled with the heart-rending desperation of people who never learned the fates of loved ones missing for more than 40 years.
At the end of the day, she says, she and her husband are "emotionally exhausted. Harry says he always feels like we should say a memorial prayer on the ride back to Annapolis."
Native Germans who escaped the country before World War II broke out, the Lindauers are among 45 volunteers who have helped process request forms since the center opened three months ago in the northwest Baltimore office of the American Red Cross. Almost from the minute the center began operation, people have been telephoning and mailing in applications for information on relatives and friends who died or disappeared in Europe during World War II.
The center provides access to documents bearing the names of 400,000 people who perished or were interned in Nazi concentration and forced labor camps. The original documents were recovered by the Soviet army during the liberation of the camps at war's end. Earlier this year, the Soviets gave the documents to the International Tracing Service, a Red Cross agency in Arolsen, Germany.
Request applications from around the country are completed at local Red Cross offices. These are sent to the Baltimore tracing center and translated into German by volunteers, such as the Lindauers. The forms are then forwarded to Arolsen.
A year or more may pass before any information comes back, according to Diane Paul, program director at the center.
"Tracing-work is long and difficult," says Paul. "There's no certainty in it. It's hard to find someone after 45 years."
She says the center has accepted more than 1,400 requests since late September. That exceeds the amount Arolsen received from the U.S. during all of 1989.
The center also can tap into the international Red Cross network to search for people who have been missing in countries outside of Europe more recently than World War II.
Each year, the Arolsen tracing center reportedly receives 100,000 requests from people around the world seeking information about missing persons. The center has documents on 13 million people.
Paul expects some reunions to result from the tracing process, but the "realistic goal" is finding the date of death for a person who has long been missing or presumed dead, she says.
"For many of the people who are making applications, there will be no information," says Paul. "Just a dead end, and that's a bitter pill to swallow. But we feel we have to make the effort. The search can bring a lot of pain, but it helps people to move forward with their grieving. At least they know, finally."
Some of the volunteers at the Baltimore center have made their own requests for information about loved ones who have disappeared.
The Lindauers came to the U.S. separately, when both were in their teens, and settled in the Chicago area. They met at a Valentine's Day party in 1946.
Now they plan to apply for any available leads on some of Harry Lindauer's long-lost relatives. Thea Lindauer's German relatives escaped safely to North and South America.
"I've got some aunts and cousins I want to look for," says Harry Lindauer, a retired U.S. Army colonel who was drafted into the service in early 1941 and eventually saw action in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. "I'll submit the forms. But I don't know if anything will come of it."