Opening of archive likely to spur new generation of Holocaust scholarship





The Associated Press was recently given extensive access to the largest archive of Nazi prison camp records, which has been closed for 50 years, on condition that names of the victims remain protected. This is the first in a series of reports.

BAD AROLSEN, Germany (AP) — 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 (26 kilometers) 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.



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Clare Lois Spark - 11/19/2006

It is hard to believe that anyone can claim today that the death camps were mostly secret. They were not.

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