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Nazi victim archives to be opened { April 19 2006 }

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Nazi Archive Has Millions of Victim Names

The Associated Press
Wednesday, April 19, 2006; 4:27 PM

BAD AROLSEN, Germany -- Row upon row of metal cabinets at the International Tracing Service hold the key to the lives _ and deaths _ of 17.5 million of Adolf Hitler's victims.

Much of it is simple, stark facts _ a name on a concentration camp death list _ while other information is more descriptive: accounts of mental illness, real or imputed homosexuality, medical records, even the presence of head lice.

Privacy concerns have held up the opening of the center's 30 million documents to historians and the public, a restriction that could end soon under pressure from Holocaust researchers and Jewish organizations.

In a key breakthrough, the German government said Tuesday it was ready to work with the United States on the issue, though no final agreement has been reached.

Maria Raabe, assistant to the center's director, said it will ultimately be up to the 11 countries that oversee the archive _ Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Israel, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Britain and the United States. Their representatives meet May 16 in Luxembourg.

"It's there that a decision will be taken on opening the archives and in what way," she said. "We have very delicate and sensitive information about illness, homosexuality, dementia."

One card shows the name of a Frenchman taken to Norway and forced to work as a carpenter building a submarine pen for the German navy. Another lists a Hungarian said to suffer from schizophrenia. Another bears the name of a German imprisoned at Buchenwald for saying anti-Nazi slogans and freed on orders of the U.S. Army on May 7, 1945 _ the day the war ended.

Many of the records are registration documents, ID cards or lists. Yet they provide powerful testimony to the lives and deaths of those imprisoned, forced to work for German industry or killed in concentration camps during World War II.

The agency, which opened in 1943 in London and moved to Germany in 1945, helps relatives of Nazi victims discover their fates.

More than 50 million references to the victims have been catalogued, cross-referenced and, in most cases, digitally scanned to form a huge database. Some 150,000 requests were dealt with last year alone.

It is by far the most complete listing of those who suffered in World War II, said Udo Jost, archive manager for the International Tracing Service.

Some death camps "didn't have much use for records," Jost told The Associated Press. In some cases, documents were destroyed by the Nazis as the Russians advanced from the east and the Allies from the west.

Other camps were ardent record keepers. Mauthausen, in Austria, diligently recorded the deaths of its inmates, listing them by name, serial and prisoner number, as well as place and date of birth.

"It also shows how they died," Jost said, displaying the camp's Totenbuch, or Death Book, for 1942 and 1943. "These prisoners were killed every two minutes with a shot to the back of the head."

In a few hours, 300 were executed on April 20, 1942.

"That was Hitler's birthday. The camp commandant did it as a birthday gift for him," Jost said.

The Nazis documented everything from the mundane _ how many meals a forced laborer received _ to the horrific, describing prisoners' deaths in painstaking detail.

People requesting information about themselves or relatives are given priority, as do the elderly or sick, and those seeking information for legal settlements.

Still, it takes 3 1/2 years on average, Raabe said.

"Some are seeking information on relatives who were taken to Germany to work and then emigrated after the war to somewhere else," she said. "Others need to prove that they were in a concentration camp."

When a family member is seeking a lost relative, the agency tries to track down that person. Most times it is successful, but not everyone is eager to be found.

"When that happens, we notify them that we were not successful," she said, adding that the agency does not divulge confidential information.

Even advocates of opening the records to historical research or the public acknowledge the privacy issue.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany is "very much in favor of opening up the archive," said general secretary Stephan J. Kramer.

"Yes, we are concerned that personal information be treated carefully," he added, noting that Holocaust centers such as Israel's Yad Vashem have extensive experience balancing privacy concerns with researchers needs and can be trusted to handle the data carefully.

The issue has been debated for years, but German Justice Ministry spokeswoman Cristiane Wirtz said the treaties that govern the center made change difficult. "These treaties, which make possible the work of this archive, do not foresee that opening of the archives for research purposes. That is the legal problem," she said.

"We will have to wait and see what comes out of this assembly. The fact is that there have been intensive talks ... and we will have to wait and see whether all problems have been solved to the extent that we can actually open the archives for research purposes."

Several Holocaust scholars applauded Germany's decision to consider allowing wider access.

"We are pleased," said Iris Rosenberg, spokeswoman for Yad Vashem. Israel's Holocaust museum "believes that all information related to the Holocaust should be open to scholars and the general public."

"The opening of these records is an important step forward that will give the victims of Nazi genocide their names back," added David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. "The German government has found the appropriate balance of personal privacy and open access."

2006 The Associated Press

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