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Vast Nazi Archive Opens to Public, Ending 60 Years of Holocaust Secrecy

by Arthur Max

AMSTERDAM, Nether­lands

After more than 60 years, Nazi doc­u­ments stored in a vast ware­house in Ger­many were unsealed Wednes­day, open­ing a rich resource for Holo­caust his­to­ri­ans and for sur­vivors to delve into their own tor­ment­ed past.

The trea­sure of doc­u­ments could open new avenues of study into the inner work­ings of Nazi per­se­cu­tion from the exploita­tion of slave labor to the con­duct of med­ical exper­i­ments. The archive’s man­agers planned a con­fer­ence of schol­ars next year to map out its unex­plored con­tents.

The files entrust­ed to the Inter­na­tion­al Trac­ing Ser­vice, an arm of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, have been used to find the fate of miss­ing per­sons or doc­u­ment atroc­i­ties to sup­port com­pen­sa­tion claims. The U.S. gov­ern­ment also has referred to the ITS for back­ground checks on immi­grants it sus­pect­ed of lying about their past.

Inquiries were han­dled by the archive’s 400 staff mem­bers in the Ger­man spa town of Bad Arolsen. Few out­siders were allowed to see the actu­al doc­u­ments, which num­ber more than 50 mil­lion pages and cov­er 16 lin­ear miles of gray met­al fil­ing cab­i­nets and card­board binders spread over six build­ings.

On Wednes­day, the Red Cross and the Ger­man gov­ern­ment announced that the last of the 11 coun­tries that gov­ern the archive had rat­i­fied a 2006 agree­ment to open the files to the pub­lic for the first time.

“We are there. The doors are open,” said ITS direc­tor Reto Meis­ter, speak­ing by tele­phone from the Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp where he was vis­it­ing with a del­e­ga­tion of U.S. con­gres­sion­al staff mem­bers.

Sur­vivors have pressed for decades to open the archive, unhap­py with the min­i­mal respons­es usu­al­ly in form let­ters from the Red Cross offi­cials respond­ing to requests for infor­ma­tion about rel­a­tives.

“We are very anx­ious,” said David Mer­mel­stein, 78, an activist for sur­vivors’ caus­es in Mia­mi, Fla., who wants to scour the files for traces of his two old­er broth­ers whom he last saw as he passed through a series of con­cen­tra­tion camps.

“Now I hope we will be able to get some infor­ma­tion. We have been wait­ing, and time is not on our side,” said the retired busi­ness­man.

The U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton and the Yad Vashem Memo­r­i­al in Jerusalem began receiv­ing dig­i­tal copies of the entire archive in August, allow­ing sur­vivors and his­to­ri­ans more access points.

Izzy Arbeit­er, 82, the head of a sur­vivor’s orga­ni­za­tion in the area of Boston, Mass., said he hoped to go to the muse­um next month to browse the files.

“My good­ness, I don’t know where I would start, there are so many things I am inter­est­ed in,” he said. “The his­to­ry of my fam­i­ly, of course. My par­ents. One of my broth­ers is miss­ing. We nev­er knew what hap­pened to him.”

Yad Vashem said the open­ing of the archive was “a break­through” for sur­vivors and oth­ers.

“Our under­stand­ing and knowl­edge of the per­son­al sto­ry of the Holo­caust will be deep­ened,” said Yad Vashem’s chair­man Avn­er Shalev.

The records are unlike­ly to change the gen­er­al sto­ry of the Holo­caust and the Nazi era, prob­a­bly the most intense­ly researched 12-year peri­od of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

But its depth of detail and orig­i­nal doc­u­men­ta­tion will add tex­ture to his­to­ry’s worst geno­cide, and is like­ly to fuel a revival of aca­d­e­m­ic inter­est in the Holo­caust.

Among its files, seen by The Asso­ci­at­ed Press dur­ing repeat­ed vis­its to Bad Arolsen in the last year, are the list of depor­tees from the Nether­lands to Auschwitz on which Anne Frank’s name appears, the list of employ­ees of Oskar Schindler’s fac­to­ry who were shel­tered from death, med­ical records show­ing the num­ber of lice on the heads of pris­on­ers, the list of inmates evac­u­at­ed by the Nazis from the Neuengamme labor camp who lat­er died on pris­on­er boats mis­tak­en­ly bombed by the British air force.

Defy­ing its order­ly appear­ance, the archive is a labyrinth of paper that has nev­er been orga­nized by a his­to­ri­an or even by a pro­fes­sion­al­ly trained archivist. Its main data­base com­pris­es 50 mil­lion entries of names, often dupli­cat­ed in dif­fer­ent spellings, refer­ring to 17.5 mil­lion vic­tims of Nazi per­se­cu­tions.

The Bad Arolsen facil­i­ty, which has received 50 appli­ca­tions this month alone from researchers and insti­tu­tions seek­ing to exam­ine the archive, has opened a vis­i­tors room with 10 com­put­er ter­mi­nals to enable search­es of files that have been scanned. But less than half of the 50 mil­lion pages have been dig­i­tized and are avail­able on com­put­er.

Though the archives are now open to the pub­lic, Erich Oetik­er, the ITS deputy direc­tor, said any­one seek­ing spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion would need pro­fes­sion­al assis­tance and all vis­i­tors are asked to make an appoint­ment in advance.

While it is not set up to receive unan­nounced vis­i­tors off the street, he said, “we will refuse nobody, but we have very lim­it­ed staff to pro­vide sup­port.” Guid­ed tours are also avail­able.

Vis­i­tors have to show ID and can­not access a spe­cial cat­e­go­ry of doc­u­ments cor­re­spon­dences between the ITS and pri­vate or offi­cial inquir­ers that are less than 25 years old. Researchers must sign a waiv­er stat­ing that they are per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for respect­ing pri­va­cy laws.

The ITS gets about 700 requests each month for infor­ma­tion about rel­a­tives, and has not yet cleared away a back­log of inquiries that reached near­ly half a mil­lion a few years ago.

The Trac­ing Ser­vice, the Wash­ing­ton muse­um and Yad Vashem intend to hire new staff to help to fer­ret out spe­cif­ic doc­u­ments.

“The chal­lenge now is orga­niz­ing the mate­r­i­al in such a way that peo­ple can eas­i­ly find what they want and what they need,” said Paul Shapiro, direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Advanced Holo­caust Stud­ies at the Wash­ing­ton muse­um.

The muse­um took the first step by cre­at­ing a data­base to search an inven­to­ry of more than 21,000 col­lec­tions of doc­u­ments, each rang­ing a few pages to thou­sands.

Allied forces began col­lect­ing the doc­u­ments even before the end of the war, and even­tu­al­ly entrust­ed them to the Red Cross. The archive has been gov­erned since 1955 by a multi­na­tion­al com­mis­sion that nor­mal­ly met once a year.

Access to the archives had been close­ly guard­ed by Red Cross offi­cials who viewed requests for aca­d­e­m­ic infor­ma­tion as a dis­trac­tion from what they saw as their human­i­tar­i­an task of answer­ing requests about indi­vid­u­als.

In 2001 the State Depart­ment, urged on by the Holo­caust muse­um, began push­ing the 11-mem­ber gov­ern­ing com­mis­sion to open the doors to the rapid­ly dying sur­vivor pop­u­la­tion and for research.

The deci­sion was adopt­ed in May 2006, but it took 19 months to com­plete the required rat­i­fi­ca­tion process.

Inves­tiga­tive researcher Randy Her­schaft con­tributed to this report in New York.


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