July 4, 2020

Exploring Stolen Memory

Personal Effects of Antonio Amigo Sanchez.
In January 2018, in honor of Holocaust Memorial Day, a traveling exhibition produced by the Arolsen Archives – the International Center on Nazi Persecution, (known as the International Tracing Service, ITS, or the Internationaler Suchdienst in German up until May 2019) was hosted at UNESCO in Paris.  Commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27th, the large-format poster exhibition highlighted a collection of around 3,000 personal belongings, from concentration camp inmates, which the former ITS archive hopes to be able to return to families.

Inside the the Arolsen Archives
Titled Stolen Memory, each poster in the exhibit showed the names of people as well as photos of the objects these prisoners carried with them when they were arrested by the National Socialists more than seven decades ago.  Simple things, like pocket and wristwatches, wallets and rings, a cherished family photo, or shopping coupons, or a utilitarian pocket comb.  Each one is a poignant and very personal reminder of the day these individuals were stripped of their freedom, and in most cases, eventually, their lives.

At the close of World War II the SS, attempting to cover their tracks, destroyed most of these prisoner traces, together with most of the documents connecting objects to their victims when many of the concentration camps were cleared. Yet, a small inventory has been preserved where tracing them to an individual victim is possible, mostly from the Neuengamme concentration camp system in northern Germany, as well as some objects from Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. 

Sadly, few personal effects of Jewish prisoners survived.  Those that do belong mostly to members of the Jewish community in Budapest, who were not deported directly to the gas chambers at the end of 1944, but were first shipped to Germany and used as forced laborers in the arms industry.

With brutal matter of fact record-keeping, Nazis bookkeepers at concentration camps like Neuengamme recorded the property of its prisoners by name, keeping them until their murder, or until they dropped dead from "Vernichtung durch Arbeit" the practice in concentration camps in Nazi Germany of exterminating prisoners by means of forced labour.  This written testimony of persecution has been essential, not only for tracing missing persons and their effects but also for documenting the atrocities carried out by the National Socialist machinery of terror.

The majority of the personal items in the Arolsen Archives salvaged after the war belong to political prisoners and detained forced laborers from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine though some objects are also the last memories of victims as far away as Spain. 

Now, a digital story-telling version of the Stolen Memory initiative can be experienced online.  Here, web participants can view objects owned by 14 former prisoners of the concentration camp Auschwitz, which tell the stories of just a few of the victims of Nazi politics.   Of the more than 5000 objects tied to individuals collected by the archivists, some 3000 still lie on the shelves.  For families, getting them back is a painful, if precious recovery, because often those effects represent the only traces of their lost loved ones they have, most of whom never returned home.

Take a look here and perhaps help find the rightful owners of these memories.


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