Researchers itch to access Nazi files

On Tuesday, International Tracing Service will discuss rules of access.

holocaust memorial 224.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
holocaust memorial 224.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
It was a tantalizing sight for a Dutch researcher into the Holocaust: Tucked away among millions of files stood a cabinet with the records of Amsterdam's wartime Jewish Council, the channel used by Nazi occupiers to convey anti-Semitic edicts in Holland. But the cabinet was off limits to J. Houwink ten Cate, just as all the contents of the archive in the German village of Bad Arolsen have been denied to academics seeking to document the Third Reich's attempt to erase millions from history. "It was like walking into a bank vault and being told not to touch the gold bars," said Ten Cate, a professor of genocide studies at Amsterdam University. For 60 years, the storehouse of tattered work booklets, yellowing transport lists and thick concentration camp registration books has been used almost exclusively to trace Holocaust survivors or track the fate of victims for their families. The custodians also felt obliged to protect histories that the victims may have wanted kept secret: arrests on charges of "anti-social behavior" or homosexuality, hereditary diseases, pseudo-medical experiments or forced sex that resulted in children. But on Tuesday, the 11-nation governing body of the International Tracing Service, a Red Cross body that oversees the archive, will meet in Luxembourg to discuss amending a 1955 treaty that has locked away the labyrinth of files since World War II. A major hurdle was cleared last month when Germany, which has the most restrictive privacy laws of the 11 commission members, agreed to work with the United States, the most liberal, toward opening the files. The other members are Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Israel, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Britain. A draft of treaty amendments is nearly complete, diplomats said. They must be approved by consensus on the commission, and then be ratified by all 11 national legislatures. Even then, more negotiation will be needed to define how newly released material may be used and to set rules under which researchers will be allowed to work and publish. With the generation of Holocaust survivors dying off, pressure has been mounting for the International Committee of the Red Cross to let researchers study the Bad Arolsen files, stored in row upon row of gray cabinets filling six buildings. Ten Cate is especially interested in the cabinet that holds copies of the Jewish Council's files. Among its contents, he believes, are the names of the few Dutch Jews who could travel freely and who enjoyed other privileges under the Nazi occupation. Examining those records "will give us insight into the politics of divide and rule by the Nazis - which groups had higher or lower chances of survival," he said. "I was astonished to find it in Bad Arolsen. The Red Cross in The Hague didn't let me see the original cabinet," Ten Cate said. Much of the information on Jewish victims in Bad Arolsen already is duplicated in the huge archives at Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. But Jews were only half of the 12 million people exterminated by the Nazi death machine, and the files held by the International Tracing Service have far more comprehensive accounts of Nazi operations. There are files on some 17.5 million people in all, and the index cards listing the archive's contents fill three rooms. The draft amendments say each member country of the commission will be permitted to duplicate the archive - all 50 million documents - and to make it accessible to researchers according to its own national law, said Arthur Berger, senior adviser for the Washington museum, which has been involved in the negotiations. Sharing the files would not only give unimpeded access to researchers, but would help people discover what happened to relatives, Berger said in a telephone interview. The tracing service has a backlog of 407,000 requests for information about those who disappeared during the Nazi regime. "We have a moral obligation to those who suffered and those who were killed to get this information out," Berger said.