Nazi records finally open to public, but the waiting list for searches is years long

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Among the 17 million people named in documents warehoused in a converted hotel in the German town of Bad Arolsen was a man on whom one louse was found. The delousing was done on Jan. 14, 1945, in Gross-Rosen concentration camp, in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The man's name appears on a lined page in neat handwriting. He was one of 13 prisoners on whom 37 lice were found. That one mention in documents means the man was entitled to nearly $10,000 from Germany's $5-billion forced-labour compensation fund. There is no record of whether he sought compensation or even if he is still alive, 61 years later.

In a recent interview with Reuters, Udo Jost, an archivist at the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, offered that glimpse into the hitherto secret information held within the world's largest archive of Nazi documents.

For more than 60 years, the archive has been used only by the Red Cross to help people trace the fate of relatives lost during the monstrous upheaval of the Second World War.

The backlog of requests for traces is estimated at more than 400,000. A request filed today is not likely to be processed for three years.

It is a sluggish pace for anyone wanting to prove they were conscripted as slave labour and entitled to compensation. It is unconscionably slow for people clinging to the faint hope of finding family members last seen in ghettos, or packed into train cars.

The ranks of Holocaust survivors shrink every year. Those still alive have little time to wait for answers. They should not have to. Nor should the people forced to work for the Nazis. A German researcher describes the typical forced labourer as a 17-year-old schoolgirl from Kiev, born in 1925. If she is alive, she is 81 years old.

Last week, the 11-nation commission that controls the archive agreed to open it to historians. The archive, which contains more than 47 million files, was closed to the public because of German concerns about victims' privacy.

These fears were far from groundless. Nazis were known to have deliberately defamed and slandered their victims. In a BBC interview, Jost explained what would happen in the case, for example, of a Catholic priest who denounced the deportations of Jews: "He could be arrested by the Gestapo, and they could put in his file that he was molesting the choir boys."

But the Bad Arolsen archive has information on what happened to millions of Nazi victims, as well as lists of postwar displaced persons. As Ulrich Herbert, an historian at Freiburg University, was reported to have said: "It is frustrating, even appalling, that these records have been kept off limits to researchers for so long."

It is, in fact, very nearly incomprehensible. To Michael Vesper, culture minister in North-Rhine-Westphalia, it seemed obvious enough even five years ago that the end result of keeping access to the archive so tightly controlled would be that thousands of elderly victims would not live long enough to claim their share of the compensation fund, set up in 2000.

The Bad Arolsen archive has, possibly, information that would allow victims to claim compensation. It most certainly has information that would enable historians and researchers to draw a more complete, detailed account of the lives, and deaths, of the millions of people trapped in the Nazi maw.

At a 2001 conference, Herbert, Germany's foremost authority on forced labour, is quoted as saying, "We owe the victims one thing in particular, that we know about their fate, accurately and comprehensively."

It might seem, that more than six decades after the end of the Second World War, that the world knows all there is to know about Nazi crimes, but that is not true. The Bad Arolsen archives seem to contain an enormous number of stories about which nothing is known in the outside world, so many years later.

The fate of 300 prisoners on April 20, 1942, for instance. Archivist Jost told journalists about an entry in the death register from Mauthausen concentration camp: It had rows of neatly printed names, 300 of them, all prisoners of war. Each man was shot at an interval of two minutes. Their deaths, Jost believes, were a present to mark the 53rd birthday of Adolf Hitler, on April 20, 1942.

In recent years, such countries as Argentina have acted with indecent haste to sweep from public view, and consciousness, state crimes against their citizens.

But there can be no peace or learning without knowing, as Herbert says, accurately and comprehensibly, the fate of the victims.

We can accept that now, or wait 60 years, but it will still be the same.

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