Feb. 19, 2006
Order To Open Holocaust Archive Fought
The collection is heavy on personal detail, making it a delicate issue
By ROGER COHEN
New York Times
Tempers are flaring over a U.S. demand to open to scholars and researchers a huge repository of information about the Holocaust contained in the files of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany.
Based in part on documents gathered by Allied forces as they liberated Nazi concentration camps, the stock of files stretches for about 15.5 miles, and holds information on 17.5 million people, one of the largest closed archives anywhere.
The collection is unique in its intimate personal detailing of a catastrophe, which is what makes the question of open access so delicate. The papers may reveal who was treated for lice at which camp, what ghoulish medical experiment was conducted on which prisoner and why, who was accused by the Nazis of murder or incest or pedophilia, which Jews collaborated and how they were induced to do so.
Running into objections
Since the end of the war, the Tracing Service, operating as an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has used the files to help people trace the fates of relatives who disappeared into the murderous vortex of Nazi terror. Now, more than 60 years after the end of the war, the United States says that task is largely done and it is time to open up the archive, copy it so that it can also be stored in other countries and make it available to historians.
"The U.S. government favors opening up all records on the Holocaust," said Edward O'Donnell, the special envoy for Holocaust issues at the State Department. "Our objective is to open the archive, and we will continue to push."
But that push has met a wall of legal and procedural objections — from Charles Biedermann, the Red Cross official who has been director of the Tracing Service for two decades, and from the German and Italian governments. The atmosphere within the 11-nation international commission that oversees the operation has become poisonous.
'A form of Holocaust denial'
At meetings to discuss the opening of the archive, German officials have asked whether it is really in anyone's interest to have accusations about particular Jews being murderers or homosexuals made public. Because German privacy laws are much stricter than those in the United States, German authorities are concerned that an opening could lead to lawsuits charging that personal information was handed out illegally.
Wide access to the papers could also provoke new claims for compensation.
"This is a scandal and a big scar on the image of Germany," said Sara Bloomfield, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which is eager to secure copies of the files.
Paul Shapiro, the director of advanced Holocaust studies at the museum, accused Germany of "abusing efforts to achieve consensus" and "exerting a stranglehold on the process." He added, "Hiding this record is a form of Holocaust denial."
Such strong words are at odds with the generally positive tenor of German-American relations on Holocaust matters, even through negotiations as elaborate as those that led to Germany's agreement in 2000 to compensate former slave laborers of the Nazis.
Germany is outraged at the suggestion that it may be dragging its feet. "I object to the assertion that we have something to hide or are not forthcoming," said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to the United States. "That insinuation is false."