BERLIN — For the first time since it was created after World War II, an archive in Germany containing tens of millions of documents on victims of Nazi persecution will be open for historical research.
The International Tracing Service’s 11-member International Commission announced its decision May 16 after two days of intensive discussions in Luxembourg. At issue was how to protect the privacy of Holocaust victims and survivors.
The decision means that historians and others soon will have access to the International Tracing Service’s files in Bad Arolsen, Germany, on more than 17.5 million civilians who suffered under the Nazi regime. Conditions for use and publication of information still must be determined.
Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, called it “an important accomplishment,” noting that it “took many years to reach this formality.”
The agreement now must be ratified in each of the commission’s 11 member countries.
“This is an important first step,” Shapiro told JTA. “We hope the next step won’t take as long. And we want it to happen while survivors are still here with us.”
Arthur Berger, senior adviser on external affairs for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said the commission expects to set up an expert panel to go to the archive in late June to assess the technology there. A project to digitize the archive — many of the documents are in very fragile condition — is more than half finished.
“We’re trying to make the archive much more accessible to survivors and their families, and also give scholars access for the first time” to a huge amount of information, Berger told JTA. “It’s going to take time.”
Historians are sure to flood the archive with requests for a look at rooms full of dusty documents that may contain answers they’ve been seeking for decades.
“We are all waiting to see what the conditions for entrance are,” said historian Beate Meyer of the Hamburg-based Institute for the History of German Jews.
“I heard that there are some files from the Hamburg Gestapo, and I am very interested to see those,” she said, adding that the Nazi secret police “destroyed or burned all papers and documents in February and March 1945, so we have no files left in Hamburg. When we heard that there might be something in Arolsen, we were very excited.”
In addition, she said, the archive is sure to contain information that would shed light on the “terrible odysseys of individual Jewish forced laborers through a lot of concentration camps.”
This information should be accessible to the public, she said.
Until now, the International Tracing Service’s files on individuals have been used almost solely to prove compensation claims. Other files, including historical background on concentration camps, have been open to researchers since 1996.
The archive also is preparing a data bank of the individual files for future research purposes.
“We are pleased that after 60 years, the millions of written proofs for the Nazi mass murder against Jews will be open for researchers. It is a strike against all those Holocaust deniers,” said Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Policy Council. “The opening of the archives is necessary to continue research into this dark chapter of our history; it is necessary to preserve the past so future generations could learn a lesson from it.”
Germany had announced its support for the move in April, dropping objections based on the legal obligation to protect victims’ privacy. But regulations still will apply to the publication of information from the files that might be embarrassing or otherwise private — such as the nature of pseudo-scientific experiments performed on people, reasons given for the arrest of individuals, issues related to collaboration with Nazis, or sexual orientation.
Regarding victims and survivors, “you have to accept the privacy and right of someone who doesn’t want to read in a book something about his sexual orientation or other such things,” Meyer said.
German has strict privacy laws, but the laws go much further to protect the identity of former Nazis and their families. Historians often must remove the names of alleged perpetrators — aside from the well-known ones — from published research.
“If they are persons of public interest, you can publish almost everything about them,” Meyer said. “But if they were not sentenced in a trial, you can’t publish the name.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had charged in March 2006 that the International Tracing Service and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which administers the archive, had failed to cooperate with the ITS International Commission board, which voted unanimously in 1998 to open the archives.
All 11 commission members — Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom and United States — voted in favor of the move. Also present but not voting were representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The archives were created in 1943 when the international section of the British Red Cross began collecting data on missing persons at the behest of Allied forces. Bad Arolsen now houses more than 50 million card files on persecuted civilians.
In recent years, the International Tracing Service issued nearly 1 million certificates enabling people subjected to forced labor to obtain compensation. Since 1945, the archive has sent more than 11 million responses to inquiries from former victims or their families.