There are special aspects to consider when working with the documents from concentration camps that have been preserved in the Arolsen Archives. It is important to bear in mind that these documents can include contradictory information or downplay the severity of the situation in which they were produced, and most of them were filled out by perpetrators. The following introduction also describes the system of forms used in the camps, and it answers questions such as where the documents were created and how the growing shortage of paper during the war affected their production.
Most of the concentration camp documents described in the e-Guide were produced by Nazi perpetrators and other authorities involved in deportation, exploitation and murder. The information on the cards and forms therefore does not reflect how the people named on these documents would have described themselves. Instead, the documents are geared toward the logic of persecution. For this reason, they often include stereotypical attributions by the perpetrators, and they force concentration camp prisoners into pre-defined groupings to which the prisoners would not (necessarily) have assigned themselves.
Additionally, documents such as post control cards, clothing storage room cards and sick bay cards in particular can heavily downplay the severity of the situation in the concentration camps. The soberness of these documents and the information written on them make it appear as though prisoners were always able to correspond with the outside world and always received suitable clothing and medical care. But this was not true – especially after the war started. For example, post control cards were always created even when prisoners did not know the location of relatives who had also been deported. And while a clothing storage room card might indicate that a prisoner was given clothing, it says nothing about the quality of the trousers, jackets and shoes that were issued. The garments were often in a bad state, they did not fit properly, and the prisoners could very rarely change them. The sick bay cards are another example of this. Although there were clinics in the camps, it could be very dangerous for prisoners to report to them. The fact that such documents exist certainly does not mean that the prisoners received the clothing and care they needed. Many concentration camp documents were introduced before the war and continued to be used until the war ended. But the reality in the concentration camps deviated more and more from the impression of order created by these cards.
Names were often spelled differently on different documents even when the documents were issued for the same person. When prisoners were registered in a concentration camp, the prisoner clerks would have to record many names in a short period of time, often only after hearing them instead of seeing them written down. This resulted in many misspellings and spelling variations, particularly (but not exclusively) in the case of non-German names. For example, 849 different spellings of the last name Abrahamovic can be found in the Arolsen Archives, and there are even 268 different versions of the first name Elisabeth among the documents. Dates of birth can also vary, not least because people sometimes claimed they were younger or older than they actually were to increase their chances of survival in the concentration camp. In addition to variations in names and birth dates, the details of how long prisoners had spent in specific locations can also differ from document to document. In particular, there are differences between documents filled out by the perpetrators during the Nazi period and postwar documents that the former prisoners themselves filled out by memory at the behest of the Allies.
Two stamps from the postwar period can be found on many concentration camp documents in the Arolsen Archives: the I.T.S. Foto stamp and the Carded stamp. The I.T.S. Foto stamp was used on documents that were photographed by US authorities in the early 1950s to preserve the information. This stamp therefore does not mean the Arolsen Archives have photographs of the respective person, as is often assumed. The Carded stamp was used on documents that had been recorded by the ITS for its Central Name Index (CNI). This activity was referred to internally as “carding.” During the carding process, the names of all the people mentioned on a document were transferred to individual file cards. These cards noted the name of the person and the shelf mark of the document. ITS employees would then file the cards in the CNI. When a person was being traced, the employees would pull the card, which would tell them where to find the document with more information. Before the CNI was digitized in 1998/1999, around 50 million of these cards were created.
A less obvious feature found on many documents from concentration camps is a line drawn across the card or form. These lines, usually drawn with a red colored pencil, can mean that the prisoner had died in the camp, had been transferred to another camp or had been released. Cards for prisoners who were no longer in a camp were often be crossed out like this so that the back side could continue to be used without causing any confusion about the two different names on the card. Other symbols are usually found on the cards of prisoners who died. There may be a stamp or handwritten note indicating the date of death, and a regular cross or straight-armed Balkenkreuz – with or without the date of death – may be clearly drawn or stamped on the card.
Numerous administrative documents were filled out for the prisoners in the concentration camps. The type and number of documents changed over time, however. From 1933, prisoners were registered using prisoner registration forms, which were standardized for all concentration camps by 1942/1943. Personal effects cards were filled out to record the personal items that prisoners had to hand over when they arrived at a camp. This largely corresponded to the practice common in prisons before 1933. It is important to remember that the concentration camps did not hold hundreds of thousands of people right from the start. Tens of thousands of people were imprisoned when the Nazis took power, but afterwards the number of prisoners declined quickly. In November 1936, there were a total of around 4,760 people imprisoned in all the concentration camps that existed in Germany at the time. In September 1939, after the Jewish prisoners who had been arrested in connection with the November pogroms were released, there were 21,000 concentration camp prisoners in total. After the war started, the number of prisoners rose again quickly on account of arrests in the occupied territories. While there were 110,000 prisoners in September 1942, there were over 224,000 in the same month of the following year, and more than 700,000 prisoners in early 1945. Over the years, as the number of concentration camp prisoners grew and these prisoners were increasingly put to work in the war economy, the documents in the camps became more diverse and specialized. The prisoners were also registered in more and more departments.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has produced a detailed overview of the history of the individual concentration camps, including their sub-camps and external labor details. The first two volumes of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933–1945 can be downloaded for free.
Until the early 1940s – and in some cases even afterwards – the forms for the concentration camps were usually printed by printing companies in the surrounding cities. There were also several form publishers (Vordruckverlage) who could supply the camp commandants with forms. Some camps, such as Buchenwald, had their own camp printing offices and bookbinding workshops for producing their own documents. For a long time, therefore, the camp commandants were free to design and print their own forms. When the Concentration Camps Inspectorate was incorporated into the SS Chief Economic and Administration Office (WVHA) in February 1942, however, the forms became more and more standardized. But there was never a time when all of the documents in all of the concentration camps were identical.
Office Group D, which was responsible for the administration of the concentration camps at the WVHA, announced that all forms had to be ordered centrally from the WVHA from 1942 onwards. Once the requested forms had been approved, bulk orders would be sent to the Auschwitz camp printing office. From April 1, 1943, this was the only printing office officially allowed to produce forms for the concentration camps. But even before this, the printing office in Auschwitz had received printing orders from other concentration camps. From mid-1943, there were up to 60 prisoners assigned to the labor detail in the camp printing office, where they worked on machines that had been seized in the occupied territories, particularly Poland. The documents from this period can be identified by their template number. This is found in the lower left corner and is structured as follows: KL (short for Konzentrationslager, concentration camp) is followed by a number that indicates the form type, as well as information about the month and year of printing, plus the size of the print run. For example, the abbreviation KL 5/9.44/200.000 meant that the Prisoner Registration Card (KL 5) was printed in September 1944 (9.44) in a print run of 200,000 copies. Earlier documents do not have this number.
As mentioned, from April 1, 1943, concentration camp documents could officially only be printed by the Auschwitz camp printing office. The approved paper quota for concentration camp forms was therefore sent directly to this office. However, in February 1944 – almost a year later – the WVHA complained that documents were still being printed by local printing companies. The Arolsen Archives also have a memo from Buchenwald from September 1943 which reveals that 1,500 prisoner file cards had been ordered from the camp’s own bookbinding workshop – even though this was actually prohibited. The memo says that the forms had to be printed in Buchenwald, according to the officer responsible for the personal effects storage room, because the “cards that were ordered […] have not yet been delivered, and in the coming days […] around 2,000 arrivals are expected.” (22.214.171.124/82083183/ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives) The fact that different versions of documents were used within the same camp over the years also makes it difficult to categorize documents as a single document type.
In the last years of the war, large numbers of individual forms were printed. As late as February 1945, the personal effects storage room in Buchenwald alone ordered 200,000 forms, including 50,000 arrivals forms. Many documents were printed in runs of up to 500,000 copies. From July 1943, the camp commandants were required to always order the exact number of blank forms they would need for four months. Based on the orders placed after the start of the war, it is clear how quickly the number of prisoners rose as compared to earlier years. In 1938, only 5,000 to a maximum of 10,000 documents were ordered from printing companies. From the early 1940s, however, orders were placed more frequently, and they were almost always for large, five-digit print runs. This was the only way to organize the many new prisoners and the transports between the camps.
The longer the war lasted, the more difficult it became to supply enough paper to print the necessary forms. To save paper, old documents and those that were no longer needed would be reused in the concentration camps. When prisoners died or were transferred to other camps, their sick bay cards and money account cards in particular would be cut up and used again. Sometimes the side of the card that was no longer needed would be crossed out, and the back would be used instead; sometimes blank forms were simply used for other purposes. After the war, when the ITS received a card that has been used on both sides, a copy of it was usually made. The original card was then filed with the documents of one person, the copy with the documents of the other.
Most administrative forms remained in the concentration camp where they had been produced even if a prisoner was transferred to another camp or released. The cards were either destroyed in the camps, filed, or used for other purposes. However, some documents were sent along with a prisoner who was transferred from one concentration camp to another. This is one reason why the Arolsen Archives' collection for a particular concentration camp may include documents created in other camps.
When prisoners were sent directly to sub-camps – which grew more numerous from 1942 onwards – their cards and registration forms were generally also sent there to begin with. After they had been filled out in the sub-camp, they were returned to the administration of the main camp. The Arolsen Archives have memos exchanged between the camp administrations of Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück which prove that entire prisoner files from the Political Department, and even file cards from the labor assignment office were sent back and forth.
The volume of documents from different concentration camps that have been preserved in the Arolsen Archives varies considerably. The number of documents that reached the ITS from individual camps depended on whether documents had been destroyed by the SS shortly before the end of the war, and also on which army had liberated the camps and whether they later held on to the confiscated documents or gave them to the ITS. For example, the information that the Arolsen Archives have about prisoners from Buchenwald and Dachau is almost complete, and a relatively large number of documents have been preserved from the Flossenbürg and Mauthausen camps, which were also liberated by the US Army. By contrast, the collections for Neuengamme concentration camp (where the SS destroyed nearly all of its documents before the camp was liberated by the British) and for Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Sachsenhausen (which were liberated by the Red Army, who took the documents to Moscow) are very incomplete. In many cases, the Arolsen Archives only have copies of these documents from other archives.