Story by Jackie Baumgartner, National Headquarters, Casework Associate
I started working for the American Red Cross about a year ago as a Restoring Family Links intern. Based at National Headquarters, I was told I would be working with the Europe and Asia caseworker, Lisa Ghali. Previously, I had the chance to work directly with refugee clients primarily coming from Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, so I was a little surprised to hear Europe listed as a region. I was soon informed that the cases pertaining to the Europe region were a significant part of our caseload as these were mainly Holocaust, or World War II, tracing cases. The clients who initiated these types of cases were Holocaust survivors or children of survivors seeking documentation regarding their family member’s fate during the war.
A few months before I began working for the Restoring Family Links Program, the Holocaust War and Victims Tracing Center closed. The center, based in Baltimore, MD, managed all of the World War II cases for over a decade, but now the task fell to National Headquarters. As headquarters was transitioning into this new type of casework, I knew I had my work cut out for me. My primary role was to review these cases submitted by local chapters and determine which Red Cross National Societies in Europe I would be sending these documentation requests. Then, a search could be initiated through the national archives in their country.
Even though I do not get to meet directly with clients, I am still able to get a glimpse of their backgrounds through the stories told on their inquiry forms. Through reviewing these inquiry forms, I have learned of the horrors these clients and their families faced during the war, things I could not even imagine except in my worst nightmares. Tales of their hometowns destroyed, families fleeing across multiple borders, being transported from concentration camp to concentration camp, and then witnessing the terrors occurring in these camps.
Despite everything that has happened to them, they survived and are now seeking a piece of paper, official documentation, to confirm what they already know and have lived through. Clients such as these may submit requests for self-documentation, or for family members who they already know the fates of in order to seek reparations. Others have no idea what happened to their relatives and desperately need some form of closure before they leave this world. This is what we seek to provide more than anything. Nothing can erase the horrible memory of war, but at the very least we can try to alleviate some of the human suffering it has caused. National Societies abroad do not always find documentation on every sought person and I can only imagine how heartbreaking it must be for the chapter caseworker to deliver this news to the client. Yet, nothing is more exciting than when we receive a new package in the mail from one of these National Societies filled with documents to give inquirers, knowing that these pieces of paper will bring new meaning to their lives. Even better are those rare cases in which we are able to reconnect family members after decades of separation, in which both believed that the other had passed away long ago. While this line of work can be morbid at times, it is cases like these that make it fulfilling. This is what keeps me going and has cemented my commitment to the Restoring Family Links Program and Global Red Cross Network as a whole.