a campaign and exhibition
Watches and jewelry, wedding rings and documents, letters and photos: the National Socialists confiscated people’s personal belongings in the concentration camps. Almost 3,000 personal possessions belonging to former inmates of concentration camps are still being stored in the Arolsen Archives, waiting until they can be returned to the families of the people who owned them. Thanks to the #StolenMemory campaign launched in 2016, several hundred families have already been found, often with the aid of volunteers who help carry out searches in different countries.
The personal items belong to victims of Nazi persecution from over 30 countries; most of them were from Poland, Germany and the former Soviet Union. They include inmates from a wide range of different categories: “Political” prisoners, Jews, (a few) Sinti, so-called “Career Criminals” and “Anti-social elements”. The majority of them, however, were forced laborers from Eastern Europe.
Most of these personal items come from the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, while a smaller number come from the Dachau concentration camp. There are also some possessions belonging to prisoners of the Hamburg Gestapo and others belonging to inmates of the Natzweiler and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps and of the Amersfoot and Compiègne transit camps. Go to “Popular Collections” if you would like to find out more about the history of these personal effects and how they came to the Arolsen Archives.
Objects which are returned to their rightful owners are of immeasurable value to the families concerned. They make remembering and remembrance more tangible as they are often the last remaining traces of the Nazi’s victims. How and where they died is often unknown. But these possessions are also important for the relatives of survivors, especially for the relatives of those were unable to speak about their experiences in concentration camps or did not wish to do so.
»These things are all that is left of my father. I will never let them be taken away again. Perhaps I will take them with me to my grave.«
Messages from the past
The Arolsen Archives are continuing their quest to find still more families. It is particularly difficult to search for families in Eastern Europe if there is not even any information on where the victims of persecution were born, for example. Thanks to the #StolenMemory campaign and the hard work of the volunteer helpers, several hundred personal effects have already been returned.
When personal possessions of this kind emerge after decades, as if out of nowhere, it is a very special moment for the relatives. The objects are like jigsaw pieces which can sometimes even fill in the gaps in a story. Photos and documents bear witness to the carefree lives led before the persecution began. Sometimes pieces of jewelry like watches are even familiar and known to the generation of the victims’ children who remember them from years before.
The only existing childhood photo
In 1944 the National Socialists deported Johannes Berens. The 20-year-old policeman had refused to participate in searching for and deporting Jews in occupied Holland. In the following year, shortly after liberation, he died as a result of the catastrophic conditions in the Sandbostel satellite camp. When his sister, Johanna Berens, found out about her brother’s wallet, she travelled to Bad Arolsen—more than 70 years after his death. She was particularly pleased to receive the only surviving photo of Johannes as a child. The family’s home had been destroyed during the war, as had all their keepsakes. “He was my brother, such a dear boy.”
Help from many different countries
When the #StolenMemory campaign was launched at the end of 2016, the public reacted immediately with a great willingness to help search for the relatives of people who were persecuted by the Nazis. Thanks to social media and online access to archival holdings (address books in municipal archives etc), there are now many more ways than ever before to participate actively in the search. Volunteers from many different countries, including Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, France and Spain, support the Arolsen Archives in a wide range of ways—by providing useful information, for example, or even by searching laboriously at local level. Journalists report on the campaign too and publish names and photos. Many people have been found in response to this kind of publicity. National Red Cross associations are involved in helping too.
Father’s watch is ticking again
Decades after the National Socialists had confiscated the watch from his father, Jean-Pierre Lopez held it in his hands—and wound it up again. “It was extraordinary” he reports, “It seems that it still works perfectly, even after 74 years”. In 1944, the Gestapo had arrested his father, José Lopez, as an “anti-fascist” and had deported him as a forced laborer. He only just managed to survive, ending up with typhus and a body weight of just 40 kilograms.
Showing what it is all about: the #StolenMemory poster exhibition
The #StolenMemory exhibition uses large posters to convey what it really means to return personal possessions to families, and at the same time it also appeals for people to help. The aim is to raise awareness in order to attract new helpers to join the search. The campaign has been particularly effective in Poland and Spain where media reports led to tips flooding in; many volunteers have since become involved. The exhibition has so far been held in France, Austria, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg and Poland. A special feature of #StolenMemory is that it always includes posters of people from the country in which the exhibition is being held. Here are a few examples of the posters used: