By GREG GORDON
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
May 09, 2005
Some aged and frail concentration camp survivors or their family members have waited years for information from the world's largest collection of Holocaust victims' records, says a report to an international task force.
Others say they got no response when they sought records from the International Tracing Service, which has operated for more than 50 years in the remote, central German town of Bad Arolsen. The facility is overseen by 11 countries, including the United States.
Lothar Mayer, 65, a retired businessman in Boca Raton, Fla., said it took him years to muster the emotional strength to write the archive in March 1999 about his five aunts and uncles who died in the Holocaust.
Mayer soon got a notice that his letter had arrived at the ITS complex that houses more than 30 million pages of records. "I've never heard from them since," he said six years later. "I can't believe that these records are not on ... the Internet. It's mind-boggling."
Karel Fracapane, the Warsaw-based secretary to the International Holocaust Task Force on Education, Research and Remembrance, called ITS' years-long delays in responding to fading survivors "an absolute scandal."
With the world's remaining 700,000 Holocaust survivors dying by the week, he said, "This is an emergency."
The State Department has gotten involved in the matter, objecting to ITS' refusal to let researchers see more than a sliver of its records. The United States is leading a push to break a multination impasse over privacy policies and open the records before the last Holocaust survivors die. Similar records at Holocaust museums in the United States and Israel are open for research and can be indexed on the Internet.
Access to the ITS records is crucial to Holocaust survivors "because their greatest fear is that when they disappear, their stories will be forgotten," said Paul Shapiro, head of the scholars' program at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Elie Wiesel, a Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, expressed disbelief over the research restrictions.
Releasing the records is "the least these governments can do to satisfy the need, the desire, the urge of people who lost parents, who lost friends and want to know more," he said. "What are they afraid of?"
In a sort of Rubik's Cube managerial arrangement in a 1955 accord creating ITS, it is funded by Germany and mainly staffed by Germans but is overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross reports to an 11-nation commission that meets one day a year, yet must reach unanimous agreement to modify the archive's policies.
Charles Biedermann, a Swiss national who has served for 20 years as ITS' director, blamed the lengthy backlogs on the complexity of combing through 47.5 million cards on 17.5 million people, a shrinking staff and a surge in new inquiries. He said his 375 workers face a backlog of 300,000 inquiries.
"I have to accept this criticism," Biedermann said. "We are very sorry about that. If we had 800 people here ... it would be quicker."