Concentration Camp Documents and Hungarian Jewish Lives: Prisoner Registration Cards from the Arolsen Archives

Barnabas Balint is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a Regional Ambassador for the Holocaust Education Trust. His multi-lingual research combines the history of childhood, gender and identity to explore Jewish youth responses to persecution during the Second World War. Recently, he has focused on the experiences of Jewish youth during the Holocaust in France and Hungary, and he details this alongside his experience presenting at our seminar here. You can find him on Twitter: @BarnabasBalint or email him

When I presented at the IHR History Lab Seminar Series, I did so on the eve of the 77th anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary on 19th March 1944. That date marked a pivotal point in the lives of Hungarian Jews, sealing many of their fates and leading to the deportation over the coming months of over 400,000 of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. This was the case for Piroska Grünzweig, one of the people whose history I shared in my presentation. Born in the southern Hungarian town of Szedres on 9th June 1932, Piroska’s family later moved to the north-western city of Győr, a city with a Jewish community of around 4,700 people, representing approximately 8% of the local population. When the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, Piroska was twelve years old. She was soon concentrated into the ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 14th June 1944. After almost two months there, she was selected for slave labour and transported to a labour camp in Germany, where she worked in a munitions factory. As the war came to a close, Piroska was forced onto a death march, and was liberated by allied forces while walking. 

My paper for the Seminar Series conducted a case study of 141 individuals like Piroska Grünzweig, using the prisoner registration cards the camp administrators created to keep track of them, now housed in the Arolsen Archives. Critically approaching these cards, my paper analysed the extent to which it is possible to recreate the lives of the young Hungarian Jewish women they represent. Filled with personal details, the cards provide us with vital information about issues of age, gender, origin, parentage, and trajectory through the camps. Using them, I argued that it is possible to develop an understanding of Jew’s experiences of ghettoization, movement, family, and community. This picture is, however, incomplete and there are several areas where the cards provide insufficient or even misleading information. Moreover, it is crucial to note that, as documents created by the perpetrators for administrative purposes in the camp system, the cards have a standardizing effect, reducing the diverse and complex lives of individuals into a series of data points. Personal testimonies and post-war documents about the individuals, therefore, complement the cards, providing more subjective perspectives on their lives. Brining these sources together, my paper told a story about lives interrupted by antisemitism, forced movement across geographies, and the lived experience of persecution during the Holocaust. 

One of the most exciting parts of conducting this research was the opportunity it gave to use digital humanities methods. As the cards captured snapshots in time as young Jews moved across Hungary and the concentration camp system, using ArcGIS to map these places provided a powerful visualization of their trajectories. This map, for example, showing Piroska’s journey, gives a window into multiple concurrent stories. First, there is the pre-occupation move from Szedres to Győr. Unfortunately, the cards give no reason for this move and I have been unable to find any other record of Piroska or her family. Similar experiences, however, suggest that most pre-occupation moves within Hungary were for personal reasons, such as relocation for work, education, or family matters. This is a powerful reminder of the personal and social history of a pre-war and wartime family, whose lives would later be interrupted by the Holocaust. Second, there is Piroska’s journey through the concentration camp system, deported first to Auschwitz and then to a subcamp of Buchenwald. This itself contributes to multiple histories: showing how Hungarian Jews were moved around the camp system in the closing months of the war as well as illustrating how the different camps were connected. Moreover, the distance between the subcamp (Piroska’s last destination on the map) and the main Buchenwald camp (shown in red on the map), reveals how large the constellation of satellite camps could be for concentration camps. Finally, the green triangle at the right-hand-side of the map indicates the location of a relative, Marton Grünzweig, whose name appears on the card listing the address he was stationed at as a forced labourer. Because of this, it becomes possible to understand both the impact of antisemitic persecution on family life and the workings of the Munkaszolgálat (Hungarian forced labour battalions). Placing these points on the map thus shows how several different histories intersected and how young Jews’ lives were the combination of multiple contexts. The History Lab Seminar provided me with my first opportunity to use maps like this to share individuals’ stories. Hearing people’s feedback on their use and learning how to incorporate visualizations into academic work has been incredibly helpful. 

Figure: Map visualization created using ArcGIS to show the spatial data listed on Piroska Grünzweig’s Prisoner Registration Card.

( Prisoner Registration Cards CC Buchenwald – Piroska Grünzweig, Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives.)

Telling these personal and subjective stories using the prisoner registration cards bore a challenge rooted in the sources themselves. Above all, their character as perpetrator sources runs contrary to the aim of reclaiming their lived experiences: these cards were not created to chronicle the lives of Jews but to ease the administration of persecution. Because of this, using them carries the risk of telling a story from the perspective of the perpetrators. Acknowledging the importance of their pre-occupation lives and understanding these through testimonies and additional sources is, therefore, of paramount importance. Furthermore, the cards are often inaccurate. Piroska’s card, for example, lists her age in 1944 as eighteen – six years older than her true age at the time, revealed on a postwar displaced persons registration card as twelve. Differences like this make further research difficult, requiring the matching of testimonies and post-war documents using incomplete and inaccurate information. This is even more challenging in this case, where I researched a transport of women, many of whom registered testimonies later in life under their married names, different to the maiden names on their prisoner registration cards. While these inaccuracies make further research difficult, they do provide an insight into the women’s approach to life in the concentration camps. Lying about her age on camp documentation, for example, Piroska probably sought to appear fitter and more able for labour, increasing her chances of survival. Indeed, a significant number of young people did this, a survival strategy that I explored more in my BA dissertation, recently published as an article in the Journal of Holocaust Research

Presenting these complexities at the History Lab seminar was an exciting way of sharing the work I’ve been developing in the first year of my doctorate. Building out of an online research seminar with the Arolsen Archives back in October 2020, I’ve been exploring using camp documents to inform my wider doctoral research. My project develops youth as an intersectional category of analysis for understanding the lives of Jews during the Holocaust in Hungary. As documents that record information on age, gender, place and family, the cards from the Arolsen Archives contribute to a more detailed picture of both concentration camp demography and personal trajectories. Furthermore, a close reading of them also reveals aspects of the lived experience, accentuated by contextualizing the cards with testimonies and other sources. Sharing these histories with others at the seminar was a helpful opportunity to articulate the challenges and ambiguities of research as much as the initial conclusions. The feedback I received and the connections I made has already made an impact on my work, and as I go forward in my doctoral project I look forward to what is to come. 

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