11 countries ratify opening Nazi archive

Access to 50 million documents on Holocaust now available.

nazi document 298.88 (photo credit: Yossi Shavit)
nazi document 298.88
(photo credit: Yossi Shavit)
Historical researchers and other interested people can now examine archives and documents from World War II at the Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen in Germany 60 years after it was founded, after it was announced on Wednesday that Greece, the last of an 11-member commission that supervises the service, has ratified the archives' opening. Until now, such access was granted only to Holocaust survivors and the victims' close families. The archives contain over 50 million documents related to the persecution, exploitation and extermination of millions of civilian by the Nazis. The archive should help satisfy a hunger among Holocaust survivors and victims' families to know more about their own backgrounds and the fate of loved ones. The archive's index refers to 17.5 million people in its 25 linear kilometers of files. "The sheer dimensions of the collection and its unique nature both enable these documents to make plain the horrors inflicted systematically and on an enormous scale by the National Socialist regime from 1933 to 1945," said Tracing Service director Reto Meister. "It will now be possible to carry out detailed research on, for example, the transport of prisoners, the camp populations and the health of forced laborers." Some of the material has already reached Yad Vashem, where a team has begun working on it. "All the resources and expertise of Yad Vashem will be dedicated to ensuring that survivors, their families, scholars and students, receive the information in the most comprehensive manner. Our staff is already providing copies of original documents from the ITS to survivors and their families," Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said in a statement on Wednesday. "In addition, new personnel will soon be added to assist with public and survivor inquiries - some 25,000 of which are handled annually - drawing upon the new ITS material, the ITS documents that have [already] been at Yad Vashem, and the other material among the 75 million pages of documentation housed in the Yad Vashem Archives," the statement said. The Nazis kept meticulous records of their crimes. After the war, the records in the concentration camps were brought to Bad Arolsen. For the past six decades, they have been stored in archives, bearing information about the fate of individuals, but also about shockingly cruel practices such as medical experiments carried out on the inmates. Now researchers will be able to study these records and hopefully gain new insight into the suffering of individual victims and the Holocaust generally. The service is answerable to the 11-member International Commission for the International Tracing Service (www.its-arolsen.org), and its work is based on the 1955 Bonn Agreements and the 2006 protocol amending those agreements. It is directed and administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on behalf of the commission. 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 commission that normally met once a year. "Today saw the conclusion of a long and difficult process," said ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger. "The sensitive information stored at the International Tracing Service is now available to researchers and the broader public. This dark chapter in German history must never be forgotten." The 11 countries that oversee the archive of the ITS finished ratifying an accord unsealing the documents. "The ratification process is complete," said Meister, whose organization is part of the ICRC. "We are there. The doors are open," he said, speaking by telephone while visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial with a delegation of US congressional staff members. Greece was the last of the 11 to formally file its ratification papers with the German Foreign Ministry. Poland, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the International Commission governing the archive, now must inform the ICRC that the ratification is complete, the final step in the process. "It's a relief. It took a long time - far too long," said Paul Shapiro of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has lobbied since 2001 to pry open the ITS archive. "I am pleased that the archive can now be opened for research," said Guenter Gloser, a German deputy foreign minister responsible for Europe. "I would like to invite all researchers to make use of this, and work through this dark chapter of German history." The archive had been used exclusively to trace missing persons, reunite families and provide documentation to victims of Nazi persecution to support compensation claims. The US government also has referred to the ITS for background checks on immigrants it suspected of lying about their past. Meister said the ITS has received 50 applications this month alone from academics and research organizations seeking to begin examining the archive - including untapped documents of communications among Nazi officials, camp registrations, transportation lists, slave labor files, death lists and postwar displaced persons files. The records are unlikely to change the general knowledge 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 and detail, and is likely to fuel a revival of academic interest in the Holocaust.