Holocaust archives inaccessible no longer

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Files, which were collected by the Red Cross from concentration camps, hospitals and other parts of the Nazi regime after World War II and stretch out over 17 miles of shelves in the tiny German town of Bad Arolsen, have been nearly impossible to access. But now, Bad Arolsen has opened its doors to survivors. Digital copies of the archive will be circulated around the world, and one of the copies will be made available at the Holocaust Museum in Washington later this year or early in 2008.

Requests from historians were turned away, and requests from survivors and their descendants would go unanswered for years. As of 2006 there was a backlog of 425,000 requests from survivors and their families; while that number has been reduced, it's still substantial. As survivors reach the end of their lives, time is more and more of the essence.

The International Tracing Service, which runs the archive, was originally conceived as an organization to help family members who had survived the war and to inform them of others who had not.

Any modification to the archive for public consumption requires unanimous consent from the 11 countries that run it. Sometimes that consent takes a long time. The agreement to open the archives to the public was finally signed in May 2006, but only nine of the 11 member countries have ratified the changes. France and Italy now remain, and are expected to ratify it by the end of the year.

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