“Happy times”: Working at the Arolsen Archives 78 years ago

Emma van Banning was 24 years old when she came to Germany in the fall of 1945 to work at the Arolsen Archives and help families search for relatives who had been deported by the Nazis. She started out as a typist, later she even managed a team. As she told her daughter Karen years later, those were the happiest days of her life. Karen visited the Arolsen Archives in person to find out more about the work her mother used to do.

“My mother loved her job in Arolsen. She talked about her time here a lot. She often told us how much she loved working in the Tracing Service and about how close she became to the colleagues she had there,” remembers Karen Mayfield, speaking of Emma van Banning. After her time at the Arolsen Archives, Emma (later she called herself Emmy) emigrated to the USA, where she died in 1996. “Right up until she died, she stayed in very close contact with some of her friends from back then,” added Karen.


Karen Mayfield (right) during her visit to the Arolsen Archives in October 2023.


Emma looked happy in Bad Arolsen

Karen is a retired high school teacher from Texas, and before her visit to Bad Arolsen, the place that had meant so much to her mother, she only knew the town from photos. “She looks so happy in the pictures. That made me want to know more.” Karen began researching her family history and her mother’s time in Germany some time ago. She was determined to travel to Bad Arolsen to search for more information. She managed to make the journey at the beginning of October. Visiting the Arolsen Archives gave her intimate insights into her mother’s work. Her daughter Katya, Emma’s granddaughter, accompanied her on the trip.


»I wanted to see this place, this work that affected her so deeply, with my own eyes.«

Karen Mayfield, Emma van Banning’s daughter



Mother and daughter search for more information

Karen and Katya visited the permanent exhibition on the work of the Arolsen Archives too. Here they gained a real sense of the work their mother and grandmother Emma van Banning was involved in during the organization’s early years immediately after the war.


Katya talks about her grandmother and the Nazi era



Emma made a career for herself at the Tracing Service

Emma van Banning worked for the predecessor organizations of the Arolsen Archives for six years in all. Born in the Netherlands, she first came to Bad Arolsen in 1945 as a typist with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Later she became a secretary and a tracing officer with the International Refugee Organization (IRO), before finally heading a department at the Göttingen Tracing Bureau of the International Tracing Service (ITS). She took a large number of photos documenting this period. Her daughter brought over 100 pictures with her to Bad Arolsen, and we were able to scan them for our archive. They are a fascinating record of the early years of the tracing service – here is a small selection of the photos:



Emma’s brother Alfons was a victim of Nazi persecution

Emma probably first came into contact with UNRRA through her brother Alfons. He was a former “Night and Fog” prisoner from the occupied Netherlands: In 1941, the National Socialists began deporting thousands of “suspicious” people to Germany as a deterrent to resistance in the occupied territories. They sentenced the prisoners to death or held them in concentration camps there. Their families did not find out why or where their relatives had disappeared to until the end of the war. Alfons van Banning survived the Dachau and Natzweiler concentration camps. After his liberation, he got involved in the work of the tracing services – and eventually became Head of the Dutch Tracing Office in Arolsen. His future wife Gwynneth Parry was his deputy. They married in July 1947 and left Arolsen in October 1952 to move to the Netherlands.



Franziska Schubert from the Arolsen Archives shows Karen and Katya News-Bulletin No. 2, pointing out Alfons van Banning’s name, Emma’s brother. He took part in the International Tracing Conference in 1949.


Shaking off the heavy burden of the war years

Later, Emma van Banning did not often speak of the fates of the people in the concentration camps or the terrible things described in the Nazi files. Instead, she would speak of the glorious time she had in Arolsen and of how it helped her completely shake off the heavy burden of the terrible war years and the Nazi atrocities, as her daughter recounts in this interview:



Emigration with the love of her life

Emma van Banning met her future husband at a party at the castle of Arolsen while she was working at the Arolsen Archives – he was an officer in the American Air Force. She left Germany for his sake in 1951 and initially took up a job with the United Nations in New York. They got married in 1953. From then on, she bears the name Emmy van Banning Mayfield. She stayed in the USA and had two daughters – Karen and later Moira. Despite all her happy memories, she never returned to Bad Arolsen. For her daughter and granddaughter, it was a great pleasure to make the journey for her.


Emma van Banning with her future husband, a US soldier. She met him while she was living in Germany. In the end, her love for him took her to the USA, where she gives birth to two daughters: Moira and Karen.

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