Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Museums to get copies of biggest closed archive of Nazi records


The unreported part of this story is the reluctance of the Holocaust museums to release these records to the internet, or to allow a searchable database to be developed for that purpose.

The heart of this issue can be found buried in the article: "The public will be able to come to the museum and see the material in the manner in which we received it," said Paul Shapiro, director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.”

If the “public” can’t afford to travel to the museum, or the “public” is too elderly, sick, or disabled to visit—they can’t obtain the records unless, I am sure, they pay a nice tidy sum to “trained guides” at the Holocaust Museum. I doubt such “research” work will be offered free to the public!

These records should be available to everyone with an internet connection, not re-hidden in the library of the Holocaust museums of Washington and Jerusalem.

By Arthur Max, Associated Press

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Holocaust survivors move closer this week to being able to find a paper trail of their own persecution when the keepers of a Nazi archive deliver copies of Gestapo papers and concentration camp records to museums in Washington and Jerusalem.

For a survivor, it could be discovering one's name on a list of deportees crammed into a cattle car; a record of a fiendish medical experiment from which physical or mental scars remain; an innocuous-looking "behavior report" condemning the inmate to further tortures; or an order from the Gestapo, the secret police, to liquidate a camp, signaling the start of a "death march" in the closing days of World War II.

But it will be months before the archive can be used by survivors or victims' relatives to search family histories. Even after it opens to the public, navigating the vast files for specific names will be nearly impossible without a trained guide.

This week, the director of the International Tracing Service, custodian of the unique collection that has been locked away for a half century in Germany, is transferring six computer hard drives bearing electronic images of 20 million pages to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Copies will go to the Yad Vashem Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.

It is the first tranche of digital copies from one of the world's largest Nazi archives, with the final documents scheduled to be copied and delivered by early 2009.

"For research into the Holocaust, this is the main substance. It is the heart of the archive," said Reto Meister, the former Swiss diplomat who heads ITS, a branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Meister will hand over the hard drives to museum director Sara J. Bloomfield in Washington. He also will brief congressional staff on progress in opening the files — a nod to American lawmakers who pressed the ITS' 11-nation oversight commission to open the doors.

Though the museums' researchers can begin working with the material immediately, the public must wait for legal formalities to conclude — which could take several more months.

Unlocking the archive required all 11 countries to amend their international treaty. France, Italy and Greece have yet to complete the process. The others on the commission are the United States, Israel, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Luxembourg and Germany.

The index of 17.5 million names on file with ITS is the key to finding documents and will arrive later this year, though it is not in computer-readable format and cannot be used like Google. "The public will be able to come to the museum and see the material in the manner in which we received it," said Paul Shapiro, director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

Also, there is no guarantee that a name appears in the archive. It may have been among the many destroyed by the Nazis as their defeat approached. Those sent to directly to death camps may never have been listed anywhere.

But historians believe the files will add texture to the narrative of misery in the camps, where millions of people were worked to death or were simply exterminated with industrial efficiency. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, one of every three Jews on earth.

The Associated Press has been given repeated access to the archive in Bad Arolsen in recent months. Random searches through its 16 linear miles of files revealed a wealth of mundane yet telling detail on life and death in the camps.

For instance, a researcher can learn that already in 1936, well before Hitler's Final Solution was launched, food rations at the Lichtenberg concentration camp were so meager that an officer complained to his commander that the inmates' health was in jeopardy. The file contains no indication rations improved.

The Tracing Service was created from the papers gathered by the Allies after the war and stored in a disused SS barracks in Bad Arolsen. The Red Cross took over responsibility in 1955. Its task was to find missing people, reunite families or discover how victims died. Later it was used to support restitution claims.

"There can be a lot there that no one expects," said Juergen Matthaeus, the director of applied research at the Holocaust Studies center in Washington. "This is the biggest trove of material on the camps. If it's not there, then probably it's not to be found."

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