Family research into Holocaust surges during lockdown

The Wiener Library's International Tracing Service has seen a 25 per cent increase in research requests, though continued funding remains in the balance


The Wiener Holocaust Library has seen a surge in research requests for its International Tracing Service during lockdown.

According to its head of research, despite the library weathering the pandemic thanks to a “strong and loyal supporter base”, there are uncertainties about the continued funding of the 30 million-page digital archive it houses.

During the months of lockdown, compared to the same time last year the library saw a 25 per cent increase in research requests to the ITS (now known as the Arolsen Archives), which contains Holocaust-era documents relating to over 17.5 million individuals.

Dr Christine Schmidt, the library’s deputy director and the person in charge of the Arolsen Archive, says this could be due to several factors.

“People are at home and having a bit more time on their hands, and the other reason is maybe a bit more emotional,” she said.

“My sense is that there’s more time for reflection, [people] looking at family documents, and maybe this time of being separated from family members has people thinking about connections to family members, both present and past.”

She added that, being a digital archive, they were “fortunate” that the researchers had been able to continue their work remotely during the lockdown.

The archive was originally established by an 11-member state international committee, with each member holding a digital copy (the original physical archive is held in Germany). In 2011, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) made the Wiener Library custodian of the records.

Now, the library is hoping to secure a longer-term funding commitment from the FCO to be able to continue running the service.

According to Dr Schmidt, the funding “hasn’t been confirmed yet”, but “all parties involved realise the importance of this research and that it is vital to keep this copy running in the UK.”

Dr Schmidt did not want to comment on the specific amount of funding it receives. It also receives financial support from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The library has experienced similar spikes in interest following key political shifts in the past few years, Dr Schmidt said. Following the Brexit vote, there was a rise in people requesting documents needed for German citizenship applications.

They expect a similar spike to occur in the wake of Austria’s move to allow decedents of refugees who fled the country under the Nazis to obtain citizenship, which was announced at the end of August.

Dr Schmidt told the JC such requests demonstrated how the “personal impact” of the Holocaust was still being felt.

She pointed to the example of Avigdor ‘Vic’ Cohnheim, who as a child was deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto and survived. His mother, who also survived, never told him who his father was.

Following research into the archive, for the first time in 2019 Mr Cohnheim discovered the identity of his father, who had been murdered in Auschwitz.

Dr Schmidt said there were “very basic things we still don’t know” about the effects of the Shoah, but added that it was “remarkable” at a time of social distancing that their work was still bringing people closer to their relatives.

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