Archives release may reveal new Holocaust victims
May 1, 2007 - 8:30:56 AM

Bad Arolsen -, May 1 - The opening of one of the world's most extensive archives dealing with Nazi concentration camps and forced labour may reveal the names of many previously unknown Holocaust victims, according to the archives chief, Reto Meister.

The vast store of unique papers managed by the International Tracing Service - is kept in the German town of Bad Arolsen.

The ITS, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, helps survivors of the camps and the press-gangs to claim pensions and compensation and assists families who want to know where their loved ones suffered.

But ITS has always withheld the papers from history researchers. Even the survivors have only seen ITS transcripts of their own data, not images of the yellowing original documents.

The 11 nations governing the archives have now agreed to modify a 1955 treaty, not only allowing historians into the collection, but also permitting digital photographs of the entire archives to be lodged at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

A further copy will go to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, where official Paul A. Shapiro says the 35 million to 50 million pages will double that museum's document collection in one step.

The Wiener Library in London has inquired about becoming the British repository.

Ben Barkow, director of the Wiener, which is Britain's main Holocaust archives, has revealed: 'We're considering whether it's a realistic thing for us. It's a vast source and will generate a huge number of inquiries which we'll be unable to cope with unless we get extra resources.'

Among the documents is the typewritten Schindler's List, the subject of Steven Spielberg's film of the same name and recording the Jews in Bruennlitz camp saved from death by entrepreneur Oskar Schindler.

Six countries, including Israel, the US and Germany, have ratified the treaty changes, but the archives cannot be unlocked until legislators in five more nations, including France, Italy and Greece, get around to voting through the change.

The long wait is frustrating the US, which has led the battle to open the data before all the Holocaust survivors die.

So far the data has been mined by the ITS staff to card-index the names of 17.5 million individuals - Jews, Poles, Belgians and many other ethnicities - trapped by the Nazis' infernal machine.

But it has never been trawled to survey whole groups, for example the populations of pre-war shtetls, or Jewish villages, or the workforces compelled to manufacture Nazi weapons, or the shiploads of displaced people fleeing the Soviets after the war to Latin America.

Putting a copy of the archives on US soil means that research among the images can be conducted there under more liberal US rules. Historical research in Germany is hemmed in by data-privacy laws.

Meister, who became head of the ITS at the end of last year after 25 years of operational work for the Red Cross, said in an interview that he believed the German government was 'very much at ease' with the changes to the 1955 treaty.

The documents, kept in six buildings at Bad Arolsen, a remote town in hills north of Frankfurt, are only a part of the world's scattered stock of personal data on Nazi victims. Prisoner-of-war data is kept separately by the Central Tracing Agency in Geneva, Switzerland.

Meister said he anticipated that Yad Vashem and memorials in Germany including the Holocaust Monument in Berlin would use ITS data to complement their registers of concentration-camp inmates.

'The ITS has not taken a pro-active role on this before,' he admitted in a criticism of the period before he took over. It had been 'quite restrictive' with its unique collection of concentration-camp data.

Talks had now begun with the memorials on opening up the data. It is expected that many names of previously unknown Holocaust victims will emerge when the various agencies' lists are compared.

But the new repositories 'are not supposed to put the data on the Internet.'

At a May 14-15 meeting in Amsterdam of the International Commission in charge of the ITS, regulations on access to the data are to be settled.

Meister said that to speed the release, the ITS may transfer some of the data abroad early, under embargo. Washington has pressed for this, to give software experts time to build storage databases.

The documents will only go public once all 11-member states of the Commission ratify the legal change.

The ITS, which is 100 percent funded by the German government, began converting the paper records to computerized form in 1998 but the huge task of scanning and electronically indexing them is not finished.

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