Institution tracks paper trail of extermination German archives reflect Nazi fascination with bureaucratic detail


AROLSEN, Germany -- For 39 years, Walter Jeck has been pursuing what might be termed the paper chase of terror, mining through mountains of documents whose staggering details and dimensions illuminate the Third Reich's commitment to the bureaucracy of genocide.

Here, he says, is a death book from the Buchenwald concentration camp, the names inscribed in ink on ruled paper, recording every victim who died of starvation or disease or was "shot while trying to escape."

Here is Buchenwald's roll call, up-to-date until the final day before the Americans liberated it on April 11, 1945.

Such clues, Jeck said, might provide the missing piece in the jigsaw of a cruel wartime destiny. Like 400 other Germans in this small town in central Germany, Jeck works for the International Tracing Service, an institution formed in 1946 by the Allies and run since 1955 by the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross to document and identify the victims of the Nazis.

As a result, far more than most of his compatriots, Jeck is confronted daily with a previous generation's genocide, documented in a staggering 47 million file cards that yield clues to the individual histories of 15 million people.

At a time when old memories have been quickened by a search for dormant accounts left by Holocaust victims in Switzerland, and when most Holocaust survivors have little time left to trace their own pasts or those of lost relatives, it is a job that conjures the past as vividly as it did immediately after the war.

The scale of the Tracing Service's archives reflects the Nazi government's fascination with bureaucratic detail, but it is precisely that detail that enables the archivists to do their work.

A paper trail of extermination, thus, might start with such incongruous documents as the health insurance cards issued to slave laborers, but those provide clues to other bits of paper.

"One individual might appear in 20 different documents," Jeck said.

Between those documents, spellings might change, along with identification numbers. The trick is to locate them all and piece them together into the skeleton of a biography. And sometimes that is a bittersweet exercise.

"During the war, a lot of children were born out of wedlock," said Margret Schlinker, who works in a section of the Tracing Service whose task it is to link the orphaned children of the war with parents they never knew. "The mothers gave them for adoption, and then you have people asking about who their real parents were."

"Even today we get 350 or 400 people a year looking for a parent, a brother," she said.

Sometimes, Schlinker said, she succeeds in locating long-lost mothers on behalf of their wartime offspring, only to discover that the mothers have moved on -- with husbands and families who know nothing of their wartime children -- and do not wish to be contacted.

"In that case," Schlinker said, "we do not tell the children what really happened. We just write and say the investigation did not lead to the desired solution."

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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