Around 3,000 personal belongings from concentration camp inmates are held in the archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS), waiting to be returned to families. Some of them can be seen in the #StolenMemory poster exhibition, which is on display at UNESCO in Paris for Holocaust Memorial Day 2018.
Large-format posters with people’s names and photos of the objects they had with them when they were arrested by the Nazis will be displayed for five weeks around the UNESCO building in Paris. Pocket watches and wristwatches, rings, wallets, family photos, and everyday items such as combs and razors open a small window onto their lives prior to persecution. The posters provide an overview of the fates of these people – based on documents held in the ITS archive.
The #StolenMemory exhibition of the ITS is being held in the context of events organized by UNESCO for Holocaust Memorial Day, which takes place on January 27th to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz 73 years ago. It is part of a campaign launched by the ITS to return personal belongings to the family members of the victims. “Some of the posters explain what it means to people to hold these mementos in their hands,” said ITS Director Floriane Hohenberg. “The others show objects whose rightful owners have yet to be found. The more people support us in our search, the faster we can return them.”
The SS destroyed most of these personal “effects”, along with documents and other traces of their atrocities, when they cleared the concentration camps. Only a small number of objects were preserved, primarily from the Neuengamme concentration camp, as well as a few from Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.
“Effects” from Jewish inmates
Very few items belonging to Jewish inmates are held by the ITS. Most of these “effects” belonged to Jews from Budapest who were deported at the end of 1944, not directly to the gas chambers but to concentration camps in Germany to carry out forced labor in the armaments industry. In the extermination camps designed for the mass murder of the Jews, the Nazis immediately exploited the prisoners’ belongings. The deadly bureaucracy of the Nazis meant that, in concentration camps such as Neuengamme, personal possessions were recorded with the prisoners’ names and stored until the prisoners were murdered.
Daniel Schwarz and István Rokza were two of the Jewish inmates whose personal possessions have been preserved. Daniel Schwarz died in Neuengamme, the victim of forced labor, abuse and systematic deprivation. István Rokza, who was 16 at the time, was taken on a prisoner transport shortly before the end of the war from Neuengamme to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated. He probably emigrated to Israel in 1949.
Political prisoners and forced laborers
The majority of preserved objects belonged to “political” prisoners and forced laborers from countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Russia. The personal belongings of people from a total of 30 nations are held by the ITS. Most of them had to perform forced labor in the many satellite camps of larger concentration camps; they primarily worked in the German armaments industry and cleared rubble after bomb attacks. The death rates were extremely high, with prisoners dying often after just a few weeks or months. “Extermination through labor” was the brutal principle.
The #StolenMemory campaign
At the end of 2015, the ITS published photos in its new online archive of around 3,000 remaining personal “effects” and the names of concentration camp prisoners. The number of returned objects rose immediately. Volunteers from various countries helped in the search for the owners or their relatives. Thanks to social media, digital archives and expired data protection requirements, more search channels were available than ever before. This prompted Floriane Hohenberg, who had taken over as Director of the ITS, to launch an intensive search campaign. “In 2017, the ITS was able to find around 90 families and return their personal mementos to them,” Hohenberg said. “With the #StolenMemory exhibition, we hope to attract even more attention and, above all, find volunteers to help us in our search.”
Images of the posters are also being shared on social media to help the ITS track down the families of people persecuted by the Nazis. “While the exhibition is on display in Paris, we will try to find the families of French victims,” Floriane Hohenberg explained. “We plan to have the exhibition travel and to adapt the campaign to different countries. This will help us in our search.”
The #StolenMemory exhibition will be on display until February 28, 2018, around the UNESCO building in Paris.