Thursday, October 19, 2023

Dan Stone's "Fate Unknown"

Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he has taught since 1999. Prior to that, he was a Junior Research Fellow at New College, Oxford.

Stone applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fate Unknown: Tracing the Missing after World War II and the Holocaust, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Fate Unknown, in the middle of chapter 2, includes a discussion of a series of letters exchanged by a girl, originally from Poland, who had been sent in 1942, at the age of ten, to Germany to be "Germanized" under the Nazi regime, and her mother, who had survived the war as a forced labourer and had returned to Poland. The girl had been fostered by a German couple and, by the later 1940s, had apparently come to love them as her parents, and refused to go back to Poland, much to her mother's anger and frustration. The mother was being assisted by the International Tracing Service (ITS), the body established by the Allies to assist people find their loved ones after World War II, in light of the immense death and displacement caused by the war. The page cites the mother's anguished letters to her daughter and explains how the ITS was investigating the legality of the foster parents' adoption of the girl, seeking ways to have her forcibly removed, a goal in which it ultimately failed. Once she turned 18, the girl could no longer be regarded as subject to the rule of parens patriae (effectively, the state as parent or guardian) and was able to make up her own mind - which was to remain in Germany.

This vignette reveals in miniature the theme of the book: the ways in which missing people were located (or not) by the ITS and the ways in which their "cases" were then handled. The majority of searches were unsuccessful, meaning that no trace of a person could be found, or were successful but with the conclusion that the person being sought was dead. Although there are many such cases like the one described on page 99, statistically they were rare, given the scale of the destruction that occurred during the war. Fate Unknown details the institutional history of the ITS up to the present day (it continues to work as a tracing service, as well as now being a "memory institution" in Germany) and then shows how researchers can use the archive to investigate the trajectories of individuals through the systems of persecution established by the Nazis and to write about aspects of the Holocaust that are lesser known. These include the sub-camps, i.e., the slave labour camps attached to the main concentration camps (Dachau, Gross-Rosen, etc.), the death marches (the forced evacuation of inmates in the face of the advance of the Red Army near the end of the war), the displaced persons camps set up to house the survivors, and the process of migration, whether repatriation or resettlement to a third country. The Child Search Branch, which was originally a separate body, receives a chapter to itself, as the search for missing children or the care given to unaccompanied children in postwar Europe, was perhaps the most emotionally challenging part of the ITS's work. The archives of the tracing process - that's to say, the files opened people whenever a search request was sent in to ITS - are immensely helpful in this regard; in many cases, they contain photographs, testimonies, legal statements and documents relating to incarceration and postwar migration.

The ITS archive (housed by what is now called the Arolsen Archives) is the largest archive in the world relating to the Nazi crimes. Containing over 30 million documents, many of them original to ITS, the material is overwhelming, yet immensely valuable. In Fate Unknown, I have brought to light many stories of individuals' paths through the Nazi camp system and shown how their lives after the war took so long to be rebuilt, using the wartime and tracing records of ITS. I hope that the book will encourage other scholars to make use of this extraordinary archive.
Learn more about Fate Unknown at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Goodbye to All That?.

The Page 99 Test: The Liberation of the Camps.

--Marshal Zeringue