George Jaunzemis was three and a half years old when, in the chaotic weeks at the end of World War Two, he was separated from his mother as she fled with him from Germany to Belgium.
He grew up in New Zealand with no memory of his early years, unaware the Latvian woman who had emigrated with him was not his real mother.
Then in 2010, a letter from the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen changed his life. He discovered his real name was Peter Thomas and that he had a nephew and cousins in Germany.
“I was astonished, thrilled. After all this time, I was an uncle,” Jaunzemis, 71, told Reuters. “You don’t know what it’s like to have no family or childhood knowledge. Suddenly all the pieces fitted, now I can find my peace as a person.”
Yet it took Jaunzemis over three decades of tenacious searching to find the vast archive in this remote corner of Germany where his past was buried.
Bad Arolsen contains 30 million documents on survivors of Nazi camps, Gestapo prisons, forced labourers and displaced persons. It rivals Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust centre and the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum in historical value.
However, many people are not even aware it exists. It was only opened to researchers in 2007 after criticism that it was being too protective of its material. Despite sitting on a mountain of original evidence, it is still struggling to get the attention academics say it deserves.
Last year just 2,097 people visited Bad Arolsen compared with the 900,000 who went to Yad Vashem.
Rebecca Boehling, a 57-year old historian who arrived from the United States in January, wants to change that.
“We have a new agenda,” said Boehling, who came from the Dresher Center for the Humanities at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.