Commission meets on Holocaust archive

Final arrangements being made to unlock the 50 million Bad Arolsen files.

nazi archive 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
nazi archive 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Armed with key concessions from Germany, an 11-nation commission convened Tuesday to finalize arrangements to open a vast archive documenting the death, enslavement or oppression of 17 million Jews, Roma and others deemed undesirable to the Nazi regime. The move to unlock the storehouse of some 50 million files in the German town of Bad Arolsen comes under pressure from the dying generation of Holocaust survivors and victims' families who fear their histories will be lost forever unless the rules are changed for accessing the files. Legal experts worked through the day and late into the night Monday on amending the language of two documents governing the archives - a 1955 treaty among the 11 countries on the oversight commission, and an agreement between those countries and the International Committee of the Red Cross which administers the archive. "There are still some problems, but I am confident we will have an agreement by this afternoon," Paul Mertz, the Luxembourg Foreign Ministry official chairing the meeting, told The Associated Press. The countries on the International Commission are Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Israel, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Britain and the United States. The proposed changes would give historical researchers immediate access to the cavernous rooms at Bad Arolsen containing concentration camp registrations, death certificates, transit lists and other minutiae of evil that the Nazis meticulously recorded. They also would allow each of the 11 countries to obtain a digital copy of the Bad Arolsen archive and to make it available to researchers and victims' relatives in those countries under controlled conditions. The commission must reach consensus on the language, and then each government must ratify the changes. Some countries will require parliamentary approval, but the US State Department can endorse the amendments without Congressional involvement. Still unresolved were issues dealing with how quickly the Bad Arolsen archive could be copied into digital files and distributed to the member countries, and how to speed up the pace of ratification, delegates said. The International Tracing Service, the Red Cross custodian of the archive, says it has scanned 56 percent of the files since 1999, but it cannot move faster without more funding. "We have only a restricted budget, and we get the budget only for humanitarian work," said Maria Raabe, spokeswoman of the ITS in Bad Arolsen. The tracing service is funded by Germany, which until last month had opposed opening the archive to public access and historical research, arguing that it would violate German privacy laws. In April, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries announced a policy shift when she said Germany would work with the United States to open the files. Delegates in the legal negotiations said the German delegation had shown more flexibility than in any previous round of talks. Monday's session was the fourth intensive meeting in the past year to break the deadlock over opening the files. The ITS, which now has 400 employees, was founded after the war to trace missing persons, including six million Jews killed in an assembly-line slaughter, and millions of displaced German civilians. Later, survivors eligible for compensation applied to the archive for documentary evidence of their mistreatment. But the service has lagged behind the number of requests for information, which still flow in by the tens of thousands every year. It now has a backlog of more than 400,000 inquiries.