Holocaust archive opens to public

BY MIKE SHERWIN, ASSISTANT EDITOR

The massive archive of Nazi-era documents contained at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, are now available to the public. For more than 60 years, the ITS Holocaust archive was open only to Red Cross archivists, Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

Now researchers, historians and the general public can access the Bad Arolsen archive, an expansive complex holding more than 50 million records, which is administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The archive was paid for by the German government as part of the country’s reparations for the Holocaust, and contains information about approximately 17.5 million people persecuted by the Nazis, according to the ITS.

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The ITS announced that as of Nov. 28, the archive is available to the public. That comes after the 11 countries, the members of the International Commission for the International Tracing Service, amended in 2006 the Bonn Accords of 1955, which set up the ITS archive.

Kathy Lass, director of International Services for the St. Louis chapter of the American Red Cross, has worked for the past seven years with Holocaust survivors and their descendents to conduct traces for loved ones. Lass helps survivors fill out the necessary forms for the tracing requests, which are sent to the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center in Baltimore.

There, the staff and more than 100 volunteers translate the request into languages relevant for the search, and the tracing request is then sent to the ITS in Bad Arolsen, along with Red Cross Societies in countries where the person might have lived, Lass said. The Baltimore center has processed 40,000 tracing requests since 1991, and has resulted in 1,300 reunions of Holocaust survivors. Between 60 and 70 percent of requests have found some information for the inquirer, Lass said.

The ITS archive being made public will have one immediate benefit for Holocaust survivors and their families, Lass said.

“Bad Arolsen is now not only going to give them any information they find, but they will attach copies of any original records they have. They have never done that before. And I think that’s a part of the new openness that they are hoping to foster,” Lass said.

One of the main benefits of the archive’s opening to the public will be for people researching the Holocaust, Lass said.

“There may be documents that have never been looked at there, that might not be of interest to Holocaust survivors looking for information about their loved ones, but of interest to historians,” she said.

“It’s going to give access to historians and researchers, and especially give more evidence to use against the deniers. With the information at Bad Arolsen, that’s going to make it more difficult for them to hold their case, I would think,” Lass said.

“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 Reto Meister, director of the International Tracing Service, in a statement.

“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,” he said in the statement.

As part of the new openness, the ITS is sending digital copies of the archive to three cities: Washington D.C., Jerusalem and Warsaw.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will house the digital archive in Washington, according to Andrew Hollinger, director of media relations for the museum.

“We are in the process of acquiring a complete collection of the archive,” he said. “Right now the priority is to get this information to survivors who have been looking for information on themselves, their families, loved ones.”

Hollinger said the museum is receiving digital image files of documents transported on computer hard drives, which are then uploaded to servers at the museum.

The museum received its first installment of the ITS archive in August, with approximately 18 million images of documents. In November, it received copies of the close to 40 million index cards containing the 17.5 million names. The museum will continue to receive installments of the archive through 2010.

However, researchers can access the archives the museum currently has, by visiting the museum, Hollinger said.

Also, the museum has begun accepting survivor requests for information. Survivors can submit requests through the museum’s Web site, www.ushmm.org/its or by a toll-free number: 866-912-4385.

Hollinger said the museum does not have long term plans at this point to make the archive available online. However, the museum has created an inventory of the more than 21,000 collections of material that make up the ITS archive. The inventory contains short summaries of documents contained in the collections, but does not list individuals’ names or contain individual documents in the collection.

Lass, of the local chapter of the Red Cross, said she still encourages survivors and their families to utilize the tracing services — which are free — offered by the Red Cross.

“Right now, we really have the infrastructure to handle all of the cases,” Lass said.

“What we give them is not only priority access to what’s at Arolsen, but we give them access to all of the Red Cross societies in the countries that person was known to have lived are queried. And we’ve gotten a lot of information from those Red Cross societies,” she said.

In addition to new traces, Lass said the Red Cross is also revisiting previous tracing requests in order to utilize the ITS’ new policy of providing copies of relevant documentation, and cases which previously provided no information.

For more information about Red Cross Holocaust tracing services, contact Kathy Lass at [email protected] or 314-516-2737.