Sealed Nazi Archives To Be Released

Christian Kennedy, U.S. special envoy for holocaust issues looks up after a news conference held by the 11-nation governing body of the International Tracing Service in Amsterdam, Tuesday, May 15, 2007.
Copies of documents from a secretive Nazi archive, locked away in a quiet German town for more than 50 years, will be released to Holocaust institutions within a few months under an agreement reached Tuesday.

The documents will give historians an intimate view of the systematic slaughter of millions during the Holocaust, and will let survivors and victims' families search for their own histories, as recorded by their tormentors.

The 11-nation governing body of the International Tracing Service, which runs the archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, voted to sidestep legal obstacles and begin distributing electronic copies of the documents to member states as soon as they are ready.

The archive contains Nazi records on the arrest, transportation, incarceration, forced labor and deaths of millions of people from the year the Nazis built their first concentration camp in 1933 to the end of the war in May 1945. It also has a vast collection of postwar records from displaced persons camps.

The name index refers to 17.5 million victims, and the documents fill 16 miles of shelves.

Until now, the files have been used to track missing people, reunite families and validate restitution claims. The Tracing Service is an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The decision to release the copies circumvents the requirement to withhold them until all 11 countries ratify 2006 treaty amendments that enabled the unsealing of the archive. It was likely to speed up the distribution of the documents by several months.

Institutions that receive the documents can organize the electronic files and integrate them into their own archival systems, but they are prohibited from allowing access to researchers until the ratification process is complete, said archive director Reto Meister.

Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, which sent a representative to the meeting, welcomed the decision. "I am delighted to see this project moving forward," said the memorial's director Avner Shalev.

"This was a huge hurdle for many people" on the commission, said J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department's special envoy for Holocaust issues. He said the U.S. government would work to ensure the final four countries ratify the accord quickly.

Those countries — Italy, Greece, Luxembourg and France — have all pledged to endorse the agreement by the fall, Meister said. The United States, Israel, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and Germany have already finished the legal process.

Meister said the first 10 million pages, about one-fifth of the documents, will be ready for transfer to the countries by early September, with another huge batch following in November.

The United States, France and Germany pledged to donate more than $700,000 to offset costs for preparing and transmitting the papers, Kennedy said, just short of the amount needed.

Seized by the Allies from concentration camps and Nazi offices after the war, the files were closed under a 1955 agreement to protect the privacy of survivors and the reputation of the dead who may have undergone humiliating medical experiments or been falsely accused of crimes.

Few people were allowed to see the actual papers. Since 1955, the archive has received more than 11 million requests for information, but it often responded with form letters giving minimal information. Sometimes, copies of documents were given to families.

Meister, a Swiss diplomat who took over as head of the Tracing Service earlier this year, said that approach is changing.

"People have the right to see their files. It's their files. They may be written by the Gestapo. Ultimately, this is the property of the person whose name appears there. Somebody who visits us gets the original to see, to touch, to receive a copy," Meister said.

Last year's amendments to the 1955 accords, reached after years of negotiations and resistance by several members, stipulated that some privacy guarantees remain.

A single copy of the documents would be available for inclusion in the 11 member states' archives, but each government was expected to take into account "the sensitivity of certain information" the files may contain, the new agreement said.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem already have already asked for copies. France also has expressed an interest.

Earlier at the meeting, delegates agreed to declassify all correspondence with the Tracing Service dating back more than 25 years. The correspondence covers requests and responses for information by individuals and governments, including requests by the U.S. Department of Justice for the files of former Nazis suspected of visa fraud when they immigrated.