World's largest Nazi archive unseals files

16 miles of files in six nondescript buildings in a German spa town contains fullest records of Nazi persecutions in existence.

The 21-year-old Russian sat before a clerk of the US Army judge advocate's office, describing the furnaces at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where he had been a prisoner until a few weeks previously. "I saw with my own eyes how thousands of Jews were gassed daily and thrown by the hundreds into pits where Jews were burning," he said. "I saw how little children were killed with sticks and thrown into the fire," he continued. Blood flowed in gutters, and "Jews were thrown in and died there." More were taken off trucks and cast alive into the flames, he said. Today, the Holocaust is known in dense and painful detail. Yet the young Russian's words leap off the faded page with a rawness that transports the reader back to April 1945, when World War II was still raging and the world knew little about gas chambers, genocide and the Final Solution. The two pages of testimony, in a file randomly plucked off a shelf, are among millions of documents held by the International Tracing Service, or ITS, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The archives contain entries on the famous and the unknown of the Holocaust. There are also written descriptions from those who survived the death camps. Applicants seeking information should call or visit a local chapter of the Red Cross, Red Crescent or Israel's Magen David Adom to complete a questionnaire. Details remain confidential and the service is free. Be ready to answer questions about the sought person, including: Family and first names, any other names that might have been used; name in Cyrillic or Hungarian script if applicable; gender; date and place of birth; parents' names and mother's maiden name; religion; nationality; marital details during the war; last known address. The applicant also needs to provide his or her own personal data and the reason for requesting the search. The two pages of testimony, in a file randomly plucked off a shelf, are among millions of documents held by the International Tracing Service, or ITS, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This vast archive - 16 miles of files in six nondescript buildings in a German spa town - contains the fullest records of Nazi persecutions in existence. But because of concerns about the victims' privacy, the ITS has kept the files closed to the public for half a century, doling out information in minimal amounts to survivors or their descendants on a strict need-to-know basis. This policy, which has generated much ill-feeling among Holocaust survivors and researchers, is about to change. In May, after pressure from the United States and survivors' groups, the 11 countries overseeing the archive agreed to unseal the files for scholars as well as victims and their families. In recent weeks, the ITS interim director, Jean-Luc Blondel, has been to Washington, The Hague and to the Buchenwald memorial with a new message of cooperation with other Holocaust institutions and governments. ITS has allowed Paul Shapiro of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to look at the files and also has given the Associated Press extensive access on condition no names from the files are revealed unless they have been identified in other sources. "This is powerful stuff," said Shapiro, leafing through the file containing the Russian's statement and about 200 other testimonies that take the reader into the belly of Hitler's death machine - its camps, inmates, commandants, executioners and trusted inmates used as low-level guards and known as kapos. "If you sat here for a day and read these files, you'd get a picture of what it was really like in the camps, how people were treated. Look - names and names of kapos, guards - the little perpetrators," he said. Moved to this town in central Germany after the war, the files occupy a former barracks of the Waffen-SS, the Nazi Party's elite force. They are stored in long corridors of drab cabinets and neatly stenciled binders packed into floor-to-ceiling metal shelves. Their index cards alone fill three large rooms. Mandated to trace missing persons and help families reunite, ITS has allowed few people through its doors and has responded to requests for information on wartime victims with minimal data, even when its files could have told more. It may take a year or more for the files to open fully. Until then, access remains tightly restricted. "We will be ready any time. We would open them today, if we had the go-ahead," said Blondel. A visitor to the archive comes into direct contact with the bureaucracy of mass murder. In a bound ledger is a copy of t of names of Jews rounded up in Holland and transported to the death camps. Buried amo the names is "Frank, Annelise M.," her date of birth (June 12, 1929), Amsterdam address before she went into hiding (Merwerdeplein 37) and the date she was sent to a concentration camp (Sept. 3, 1944). She was on one of the last trains to Germany before the Nazi occupation of Holland crumbled. Six months later, at age 15, she died an anonymous death, one of about 35,000 casualties of typhus that ravaged the Bergen-Belsen camp. After the war, The Diary of Anne Frank, written during her 25 months hiding in a tiny apartment with seven others, would become the most widely read book ever written on the Holocaust. But most of the lives recorded in Bad Arolsen are known to none but their families. They are people like Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn, a Dutchman who vanished into the Nazi gulag at age 22 for illegally possessing a radio. In a plain manila envelope are his photo, a wallet, some snapshots and a naughty typewritten joke about women in the army. After the war, his family repeatedly wrote to the Red Cross asking about him. In 1949, his parents received a terse form letter saying he died sometime between April 19 and May 3, 1945, in the area of a German labor camp. The personal effects, however, remained in Bad Arolsen, and with the family long deceased, there is no one left to apply for their return. Last May's agreement to open the archive stipulates that it will remain off limits until formal ratification by the 11 governments. After that, each of the 11 countries can have a digital copy of the files and decide who has access to it. But some delegations are worried the process will take too long, at a time when aged survivors are dying every day. "What victims of these crimes fear the most is that when they disappear - and it's happening very fast now - no one will remember the names of the families they lost," said Shapiro, who was a delegate to the talks. "It's not a diplomatic timetable, and not an archivist's timetable, but the actuarial table. If we don't succeed in having this material public while there are still survivors, then we failed," he said.