By MICHAEL BIRNBAUM
July 16, 2007
But until now, those 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.
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.
"How anyone can morally justify keeping this archive closed," said Sara Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "I don't know."
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.
It's a change that will affect survivors across the world.
"I know where my family died -- Belzec -- but I want to know more details," said Jack Sittsamer, president of the Pittsburgh Holocaust Survivors Organization. "My brother and I were separated. I'd like to know where he went and where he died."
Survivors like Sittsamer are exactly the type of people the archive will benefit. Those 17 miles of files include records of deportations, imprisonments, slave-labor assignments and of the displaced-person camps that were established after the war.
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.
But for years, survivors and their families have criticized the archive as unresponsive to their requests.
"People would finally get information after waiting for years, and it wouldn't even be correct," said Bloomfield.
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.
But it may be too little, too late.
"In a year, they're going to have a lot less (survivors) than they have today," said Sam Gottesman, a concentration-camp survivor and Pittsburgh resident. "As far as our lives are concerned, it's not going to make much of a difference."
Some survivors are also disappointed with the U.S. Holocaust Museum's decision not to make the archive available for search on the Internet.
"It should be open-book -- you shouldn't have to go to any organization to get it," said Sittsamer.
There are several barriers to putting the collection online. One is the sheer size of the archive and the status of its digitization. Having a digital copy isn't the same as having a searchable copy, Bloomfield said.
"It's as if we took digital photographs of your photo album, but there was no context or content for what it was," she said. "There are 100 million pictures," but few captions.
The International Tracing Service itself says that less than 40 percent of its collection has been indexed in its computer database, even though 70 percent of the archive has been scanned. Maria Raabe, a spokeswoman for the archive, said that the portion of the archive that contains concentration-camp records is mostly searchable via computer -- a name typed into a specialized search engine turns up digital images of the files. But many other records have yet to be incorporated in the computerized database, Raabe said. Employees still have to turn to the physical files to fulfill these requests.
It's also not clear that, under the treaty, putting the archives online would even be legal.
Once the United States has a copy, negotiations about the Internet might begin.
It's a race against time. The United States recently asked for the treaty to be amended so that the museum could start preparing the archive for access even before the remaining member states ratify the treaty. All the countries agreed to the amendment, but the Holocaust Museum still hasn't received the initial portions of the archive.
Once it does, it can begin the work of making the files quickly accessible for when the treaty gains force.
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