KEY LARGO -- The idyllic canal-side home that Rebecca Boehling shares with husband Mark Lipkus is a long way away from Germany. But that's where Boehling will be headed in January to serve as director of the International Tracing Service, an organization created by the Allies in the wake of World War II to help Holocaust victims find lost loved ones.
Boehling, director of the humanities program at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, has commuted back and forth to Key Largo for 19 years to spend time with Lipkus, who runs the local WellFound Yachts brokerage. She was selected to head up the ITS in May by an international commission of representatives from nine European countries as well as Israel and the United States.
The ITS is funded entirely by Germany as a war reparation. But since 1955 it has been administered by the International Red Cross with oversight from the international commission. The Red Cross is stepping aside at year's end, however, and when she starts on Jan. 1, Boehling will be the first ITS administrator to report directly to the commission. She'll stay in Germany for at least 2 ¬½ years.
"I see my primary role as making known, especially to researchers, exactly what's there, because it's still unknown to many people," Boehling, 56, said in an interview from her Key Largo home last week.
Boehling's stint at ITS headquarters in the small central German spa town of Bad Arolsen could be the nadir of a journey that began when she was in her 20s pursuing a doctorate by studying immediate postwar German history. She spent five years in Germany during that period, became fluent in the language, and then, in 1989, landed her professorship at UMBC. A half decade ago she became director of the university's Dresher Center for Humanities.
Then last year, Boehling co-authored the book "Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust: A Jewish Family's Untold Story." It relied largely on correspondence between family members to tell their history.
The international commission, Boehling said, selected her because of her combination of academic credentials, German fluency, administrative experience and previous work with Holocaust survivors
She'll likely need to put all that she has learned to the test at the ITS, which, though the Holocaust ended nearly 70 years ago, still receives 1,000 tracing requests per month. Five percent of those requests continue to come from Holocaust survivors.
As recently as two years ago, the organization helped a daughter locate her mother, from whom she had been separated during the Holocaust, Boehling said.
Increasingly, however, tracing requests come from relatives of Holocaust survivors, such as grandchildren and great grandchildren. About 10 percent of the requests also come from researchers.
Boehling will head a staff of 300 in Bad Arolsen. As director, she'll be charged with overseeing the tracing operation, but she said she expects her bigger task at the ITS will be related to its archives.
The organization is the guardian of some 50 million documents related to 17.5 million people, according to its website. Records from places such as Dachau and Buchenwald can't be found at the concentration camps. They're in Bad Arolsen, Boehling said.
Among the documents in the ITS archives are admission processing records from the camps, testimonials obtained by the Allies when they liberated the camps and records from the displaced persons camps where the Allies temporarily sheltered survivors after the war.
It was only in 2007, however, that the ITS opened those archives to the public. Boehling said her primary goal in her new job will be to make those records easier to access.
"I want to make sure that more research is done so that the materials are mined and to make sure that our understanding of the experience of Nazi persecution and the Holocaust is deepened," she said.
Meanwhile, she'll continue her commutes to Key Largo, except now they'll be longer. And instead of coming every handful of weeks, there will be just a few of them a year.
Husband Lipkus might also have to brush up on his German, as he's considering spending summers in Bad Arolsen. There's even a lake where he can pursue his sailing passion 30 miles from the town.
"There will be challenges," Boehling said, "but we're kind of used to that."