Holocaust files will reveal Nazis' full horror
IN A tree-lined street in a quiet German town stands a large three-storey building. Inside, in 50 million file cards on shelves that stretch for more than 15 miles, rests the fate of millions of men, women and children lost in the Holocaust.
For more than 60 years, the archives of the International Tracing Service (ITS), which document the Nazis persecution of the Jewish people and millions of others, have been inaccessible to all but those victims who survived and their children.
Yesterday, however, the German government announced the controversial decision to agree to opening up the massive archive, which is housed in the town of Bad Arolson, to wider family members as well as historians, academics and members of the public.
For the first time, documents relating to the transportation and extermination of millions of victims of the Nazi regime will be made available to the wider world.
The archive is compiled from tonnes of documents meticulously recorded by the Nazis and contains cards relating to more than 17.5 million civilians who were persecuted during the regime's 12 years in power.
Much of it is simple, solemn facts, such as a name on a concentration camp death list. Other documents relate to mental illness, homosexuality, medical treatment, even the presence of head lice - leading to the privacy concerns that have held up the opening of the archive. One concentration camp, Mauthausen, in Austria, diligently recorded the deaths of its inmates, listing them by name, serial and prisoner number as well as the place and date of their birth.
"It also shows how they died," said Udo Jost, the archival manager of the ITS, showing a copy of the camp's Totenbuch, or Death Book, from 1942 and 1943. "These prisoners were killed every two minutes with a shot to the back of the head." In a few hours, 300 were executed on 20 April, 1942. "That was Hitler's birthday. The camp commandant did it as a birthday gift for him," he said.
The decision to loosen the rules governing access was announced by Brigitte Zypries, the German justice minister who was in Washington for a meeting with Sara Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Museum, who has long lobbied for it.
Ms Zypries said: "I am happy to be able to announce to you that Germany has changed its viewpoint and will agree to a fast revision of the Bonn Agreement which governs the handling of the vast archive of 30 million records."
The agreement, signed in 1955, and Germany's previous reluctance to change it, has been the principal barrier to greater access to the documents. At the time, 11 countries including Germany, Britain, the US, France, Poland, Belgium, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, agreed that no data should be published that could harm the former Nazi victims or their families. Those nations will now vote on whether to amend the treaty, increasing access.
However, Germany's support is a major step forward which has been applauded by Ms Bloomfield, who said that opening the archives would enable many survivors and families of victims of the Nazis to find out with more certainty than ever before what happened to their relatives.
"We are losing the survivors, and anti-Semitism is on the rise, so this move could not be more timely," she said. "This archive will have immense historical significance and will be a terrific boon for scholars for several generations."
Gideon Taylor, of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also lauded the decision. He said: "These records have been awaited for years by Holocaust survivors and scholars of this terrible period.
"Their release while survivors are still alive will enable these documents to be enhanced and explained through personal testimony of those who lived through the Nazi era."
To date, access to the archive remains as tightly controlled as when it was first placed under the care of the International Red Cross. Then the principal function was tracing missing people and informing family members of the fate of their loved ones.
In the past, researchers and historians of the Holocaust have been especially critical of the policy to restrict access, arguing that the documents would help complete a picture of the Nazi slaughter of millions of Jews.
Yet until now Germany resisted the opening, on the grounds that the records involve private information about individuals that could be misused.
Yesterday, however, Ms Zypries said:
"Our point of view is that the protection of privacy rights has reached by now a standard high enough to ensure ... the protection of privacy of those concerned.".
The announcement by Ms Zypries concluded a 20-year effort by the Holocaust Museum, the US, France, Poland and some other countries to open the archives.
In Jerusalem, Shlomo Aharonson, a Holocaust specialist and historian at the Hebrew University, said the archives are supposed to contain all the names of those who died, both Jews and non-Jews.
Despite the German government's assurance that the archives could be open in as little as six months, Mr Aharonson said: "They have shown good will, but that doesn't mean the problem has been solved."
Laurence Rees, the executive producer of BBC 2's critically acclaimed documentary series Auschwitz and the best-selling book, said: "There is no question that this is great news. It has been known for decades that this is an extremely important archive and there has been an element of frustration that we have not been allowed access to it."
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