Millions Of Nazi Docs Opened To Public

The picture of Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn, bottom center, is seen with other photos and a wallet in the archive at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2006. The ITS contains the fullest records of Nazi persecutions in existence. AP Photo/Michael Probst

The 21-year-old Russian sat before a clerk of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate's office, describing the furnaces at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where he had been a prisoner until a few weeks previously.

"I saw with my own eyes how thousands of Jews were gassed daily and thrown by the hundreds into pits where Jews were burning," he said.

"I saw how little children were killed with sticks and thrown into the fire," he continued. Blood flowed in gutters, and "Jews were thrown in and died there"; more were taken off trucks and cast alive into the flames.

Today the Holocaust is known in dense and painful detail. Yet the young Russian's words leap off the faded, onionskin page with a rawness that transports the reader back to April 1945, when World War II was still raging and the world still knew little about gas chambers, genocide and the Final Solution.

The two pages of testimony, in a file randomly plucked off a shelf, are among millions of documents held by the International Tracing Service, or ITS, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

This vast archive — 16 miles of files in six nondescript buildings in a German spa town — contains the fullest records of Nazi persecutions in existence. But because of concerns about the victims' privacy, the ITS has kept the files closed to the public for half a century, doling out information in minimal amounts to survivors or their descendants on a strict need-to-know basis.

This policy, which has generated much ill-feeling among Holocaust survivors and researchers, is about to change.

In May, after years of pressure from the United States and survivors' groups, the 11 countries overseeing the archive agreed to unseal the files for scholars as well as victims and their families. In recent weeks the ITS' interim director, Jean-Luc Blondel, has been to Washington, The Hague and to the Buchenwald memorial with a new message of cooperation with other Holocaust institutions and governments.

ITS has allowed Paul Shapiro, of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, to look at the files and has also given The Associated Press extensive access on condition no names from the files are revealed unless they have been identified in other sources.

"This is powerful stuff," said Shapiro, leafing through the file containing the Russian's statement and some 200 other testimonies that take the reader into the belly of Hitler's death machine — its camps, inmates, commandants, executioners and trusted inmates used as low-level guards and known as kapos.

"If you sat here for a day and read these files, you'd get a picture of what it was really like in the camps, how people were treated. Look — names and names of kapos, guards — the little perpetrators," he said.

Moved to this town in central Germany after the war, the files occupy a former barracks of the Waffen-SS, the Nazi Party's elite force. They are stored in long corridors of drab cabinets and neatly stenciled binders packed into floor-to-ceiling metal shelves. Their index cards alone fill three large rooms.

Mandated to trace missing persons and help families reunite, ITS has allowed few people through its doors, and has responded to requests for information on wartime victims with minimal data, even when its files could have told more.

It may take a year or more for the files to open fully. Until then, access remains tightly restricted. "We will be ready any time. We would open them today, if we had the go-ahead," said Blondel.

When the archive is finally available, researchers will have their first chance to see a unique collection of documents on concentration camps, slave labor camps and displaced persons. From toneless lists and heartrending testimony, a skilled historian may be able to stitch together a new perspective on the 20th century's darkest years from the viewpoint of its millions of victims.
  • Amy Clark

Comments