To Germany and Back Again: Expanding Knowledge of Restoring Family Links Work

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Story by Susan Reiner, Greater Los Angeles Region, Publications Manager

The American Red Cross is always searching for ways to enhance, update and improve our ability to deliver on our mission – helping people in need around the world.  Recently, the Restoring Family Links (RFL) program at the Red Cross was able to send two representatives to Germany to see how they conduct RFL casework and help better coordinate these efforts between the two National Societies.

The amount of material that exists in files in Germany almost defies description. Mike Farrar, Red Cross volunteer, Chair for the International Services and Services to the Armed Forces at the Long Beach Chapter, and RFL Mentor and Advocate, stated that:  “There is an overwhelming volume of material to be dealt with on a daily basis in Germany. There are rooms full of files documenting people in the Holocaust and also POW’s.  If you put the file boxes end-to-end, they would stretch over 16 miles!”

Farrar and Lisa Ghali from National Headquarters in Washington, DC went to Berlin, Hamburg and Bad Arolsen, exploring the complex puzzle that is involved when someone is seeking information about a person lost in World War II. The trip was scheduled to clarify procedures the Red Cross uses for World War II tracing, to streamline communications and protocol with our German partners.

“We looked at the millions and millions of documents and card files that are stored in Germany,” Farrar continues.  “Everything has been transferred to the digital age, but everything is also backed up with the actual paperwork.”

The Holocaust archives in Bad Arolsen has 200 workers.  The vast resources are overwhelming, which makes efforts to retrieve and check information a meticulous and slow process.

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 “For example, we went to Munich where they have a central index – 50 million index cards with information about more than 20 million tracing requests,” Farrar explains. “When researching what happened to victims of the Holocaust, one name can have over 188,000 individuals associated with it.  The numbers are staggering.”

 “We jointly looked for ways to expedite the paperwork process,” says Farrar.  “Normally, cases can take a long time, and time is very precious to survivors of the Second World War.  The Red Cross is dedicated to looking for ways to speed that up.” 

The case that sparked the trip involves a woman looking for documentation about her own family in Germany. “It is very complex,” says Farrar.  “One of the family members was in the British military and another served for Germany.  Yet, another member of her family was sent to a ghetto.  There, he met, married a woman, and they had a baby in the ghetto.  So, we were looking for a POW – the British service member – an MIA German soldier and the relative who had the child.  How do you streamline a case of this magnitude that involves so many threads and organizations?”

Farrar and Ghali spent their time meeting with organizations in Germany devoted to tracing efforts and meeting with their counterparts at the German Red Cross. “We got a first-hand look at all the work that is done by the German Red Cross and insight into how they manage their caseload,” says Farrar.  “There are 4,000 volunteers for the whole country of Germany.  The process from their end is a lot more complicated than I thought.”

The American Red Cross has had many success stories in its work to restore families by providing information about those lost in World War II.  Among the most recent is the story of Saul Dreier who, through the efforts of the Red Cross, was reunited with his cousin, Lucy Weinberg – both survivors of the camps.  When Dreier discovered from another survivor that he might have a cousin who had survived, he asked the Red Cross for help.  The Red Cross scoured records until finally getting hits in the Czech Republic and Poland. 

“It’s something else, something unusual like a miracle,” says Dreier.  “It’s family, somebody from my blood.  I thank the Red Cross from deep in my heart for making this happen.”

For more Red Cross stories from the Los Angeles Region, please click here.