Germany to open Holocaust archives

After 60 years of tightly restricted access, Germany has decided to permit free access to a mammoth archive of records about 17.5 million victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The decision came just days before the April 18 commemoration of that horrendous event.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., on April 19, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said: “I am happy to be able to announce to you today that Germany has changed its viewpoint and will agree to a fast revision of the (1955) Bonn Agreements.” Those agreements regulate the handling and use of the huge archive of 30 million records. Zypries made the announcement after meeting with Sara Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

The archive has been controlled by 11 nations since the end of World War II. It is located in Bad Aroisen, Germany. Access to it has been mostly limited to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which uses it to help individuals trace their relatives.

Historians and the general public, however, have not been allowed to examine the records. Germany, reportedly, has been the principal force to block access on the grounds of privacy.

A final decision regarding opening the archives is to be made May 17, when the 11 nations overseeing the archives meet in Luxembourg. The decision could result in release of digital copies of the documents to repositories in the 11 countries.

“This archive will have immense historical significance and will be a terrific boon for scholars for several generations,” Bloomfield said.

According to DW-World.De Deutsche Welle, which provides news of Germany, the archive, which is known formally as the International Tracing Service (ITS), contains meticulous Nazi documentation of death camp inmates, conscription workers, and others. Allied forces seized the records when the Nazi regime collapsed in 1945. The collection also includes Allied records kept on relocating refugees.

The archives have been an essential tool for people searching for family after World War II, particularly for Jews whose relatives were shipped to Nazi concentration camps, where more than 6 million perished. The records also have been of use to victims of Nazi forced labor programs who sought indemnification under international agreements made after the war. Hundreds of inquiries come in annually about people who may be listed in the records.

Holocaust researchers and historians have been strongly critical of the German policy to limit access to the ITS, saying the documents could help to complete a picture of the Nazi slaughter of millions of Jews. The ITS, in 1998, said it was unanimously in favor of opening the records and started scanning the documents into digital form in 1999. Holocaust Museum historian Paul Shapiro said about half the collection has been digitized.

Still, Germany, and a few others, continued to balk at opening the archives, contending that the records contain private information that might be misused. The 1955 Bonn agreement makes the ITS ensure that no data is published that could harm former Nazi victims or their families.

The ITS Web site says the records have “information about hereditary diseases, pseudo-medical experiments, categories of reasons for arrest, illegitimate children, etc.”

Zypries explained Germany’s shift in position. “Our point of view is that the protection of privacy rights has reached by now a standard high enough to ensure…the protection of those concerned,” she said.

Gideon Taylor, of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, was appreciative of the decision. “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,” Taylor said.

From the April 26-May 2, 2006, issue

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