Leo Rechter, president the U.S.-based National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, told a panel of the House of Representatives how urgent the opening the Nazi war records stored in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is for a dying generation of survivors.
"Of all the public archives in the world, what possible justification can there be to prevent us from learning the truth about what happened to our families during the Holocaust?" he asked. "This information really belongs to us; it's about our lives."
Rechter, an Austrian Jew whose family fled to Belgium and survived the Nazi occupation after his father was deported and murdered in Auschwitz, spoke at a hearing aimed at stepping up pressure on an 11-nation body that oversees the secret Nazi archive. Wednesday's hearing follows the approval by a House panel Tuesday of a resolution urging the countries to speed up ratification of plans to open the archive to researchers.
The Associated Press, which has been granted extensive access to the archive in recent months on condition that victims are not fully identified, has drawn attention to the importance of the documents.
AP researchers have seen a vast array of letters by Nazi commanders, Gestapo orders and vivid testimony from victims and observers of the brutality of camp life and the "death marches" when camps were ordered cleared of prisoners at the end of the war.
Paul Shapiro, director of the Washington Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, told the panel Wednesday that he had visited the vast Bad Arolsen archive last winter with two AP journalists. He said their subsequent reports had illuminated wide-ranging historical detail previously unknown about the Holocaust and provided a glimpse of what the files might reveal.
This month, the nations overseeing the archive set procedures in motion to open the records by the end of the year. But before the material can be accessed, all member countries must ratify an agreement adopted last year to end the 60-year ban on using the files for research.
The State Department said Wednesday that Britain recently joined the United States, Israel, Poland and the Netherlands in completing ratification.
Germany and Luxembourg have said they would ratify before the commission meets again in May. The positions of France, Belgium, Italy and Greece were unclear.
Witnesses testifying Wednesday expressed frustration that the commission has waited so long to release the files.
"We survivors cannot understand why the world powers would have made a conscious decision to withhold all of the facts about our history from us," said David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation.
Some expressed incredulity that the release still faces diplomatic negotiations for final ratification.
"The timetable for this project is not a diplomatic timetable," Shapiro said. "Every month of additional delay means more survivors gone an irreversible benchmark of the consequence of delay."
While much has been written about the Holocaust, scholars say the Bad Arolsen files will fill in historical gaps and provide a unique perspective gained from seeing original Nazi letters, the minutiae of the concentration camps' structures, slave labor records and uncounted testimonies of victims and ordinary Germans who witnessed the brutality of the Gestapo.
In the last 60 years, the Red Cross' Tracing Service has responded to 11 million requests from survivors and their families, but the overwhelming number of inquiries led to delays lasting years and resulted in only the sketchiest of replies. Once the files are available in Washington, Jerusalem and other locations, survivors will be able to search for information under the normal rules of each archive.
The files have been used since the 1950s to help locate missing persons or uncover the fate of people who disappeared during the Third Reich. Later, the files also were used to validate claims for compensation.
Only personnel of the Tracing Service, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, had access to the files, which fill 16 miles of gray metal filing cabinets and cardboard binders in six nondescript buildings in the central German resort town.