Thousands are still searching for loved ones lost during Third Reich

September 10, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

AROLSEN, Germany -- It was the red snow that haunted her, that made her think of Lucy. Of Lucy, and of Auschwitz.

Friends and family kept telling Renee Duering that she was living in the past, that she should try to forget what happened so long ago. She had survived the Holocaust. She has a nice home near San Francisco, a decent life, two grandsons.

But there was an emptiness in Ms. Duering, an aching void Lucy left behind. She had never had a friendship that meant so much. "I had to find her," Ms. Duering explained simply.

Her quest, surprisingly enough, is not uncommon. Forty-seven years after World War II ended, tens of thousands of people are

still searching for loved ones who disappeared

during the Third Reich. Children are still looking for parents; brothers are still looking for sisters; husbands are still looking for TC wives; and friends are still looking for friends.

Most assume the worst -- that the unaccounted for perished in the death camps. Nonetheless, they are driven to find out what happened, to know for certain, so they might have a sense of closure and move on with their own lives. Still others cling to a tiny sliver of hope, wondering if somehow, somewhere, a person they loved survived those nightmare years.

Almost inevitably, they all find themselves filling out form No. 1609 for the International Tracing Service, which then launches a free search through the 43 million documents it maintains on victims of Nazi Germany. With in those 11 miles worth of paper, from tattered prisoner identification cards printed on the backs of cigarette cartons to the dark, bulging concentration camp Death Books, lie the missing pieces to a horrific human puzzle.

"There are lots and lots of cases of families searching for one another still, and the tendency is on the rise," said Margret Schlenke, a supervisor who has worked at the three-building complex in this central German town for 22 years.

Indeed, just when the Tracing Service had figured it would be winding down the task it began in 1945, an unexpected bounty of documents and a new surge of inquiries from the former Eastern bloc threaten to overwhelm the center.

"We know of 300,000 requests for information waiting in Moscow alone," said Charles-Claude Biedermann, the Swiss director of the service, which is funded by the German government but administered by the International Red Cross. "We can't take them all on. We would collapse."

The Russian queries were triggered in part by a mother lode of Third Reich documents that Moscow decided to share for the first time in 1989. The International Tracing Service believes that the archives contain 600,000 new names of concentration camp inmates in ledgers that the Russians seized when they liberated camps in the East. Negotiations are under way with Moscow on how to best organize the data.

As it is, the Arolsen center receives about 700 queries a day, the majority of them from Poland and mostly from people who were deported and forced into labor for Nazi Ger

many. The Nazis' former slave laborers, then as young as 13 or 14, are now entering retirement and need proof of their persecution to collect special benefits.

The center's 400 staff members, spending an average of two years on each case, comb painstakingly through the yellowing legacy of Hitler's reign -- from Gestapo records and deportation lists to the grimly detailed Death Books -- hunting for the buried clue that might disclose what happened to one person among the 14.5 million victims of Nazi persecution counted by the service.

Ms. Duering was 22 when the Gestapo arrested the young Jewish dressmaker and her family and sent them to Auschwitz. Lucy arrived that same September day in 1943, and the two women found themselves in Block 10 of the infamous death camp -- a ward where the Nazis carried out grisly medical "experiments" to sterilize Jewish women.

During the next two years, Lucy and Ms. Duering forged a friendship born of pain and despair; they came to rely on each other for their very survival. When Ms. Duering stole a scrap of bread, she hid a piece in the hem of her coat for Lucy.

"Lucy was a quiet woman," Ms. Duering recalled. Ms. Duering would keep her company at the window where Lucy, a newlywed from Leipzig, stood for hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband. He doffed his striped cap at them and waved a clenched fist on his way to the gas chamber.

"He was telling her to have courage, to be strong," Ms. Duering said. Her own husband, Fritz, had survived but a month in Auschwitz before she saw him on the truck trundling toward the gas chamber.

In January 1945, with the Soviets advancing, the Nazis rounded up the Auschwitz inmates and set forth on a three-day death march to boxcars that would transport them to other camps. Ms. Duering remembers being so thin that she could encircle her own throat with her thumb and middle finger. She could barely walk.

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