The Nazi Chronicles
Closed for decades, the world's largest Holocaust archive now reveals its secrets
Julius Mayer, a small-town butcher, escaped from Germany to South Africa in 1936, fleeing the growing Nazi menace to one of the only countries offering visas to Jews at the time. For years afterward, Mayer urged his five brothers and sisters to follow him. And for years, they declined.
What was there to worry about? they wrote. Their family had lived in the tiny village of Ediger for four centuries, after all; they were prominent citizens and friendly with their neighbors. Whatever horrible things were happening to Jews in Germany's big cities, they said, would surely never reach their little hamlet on the banks of the Mosel River. "Still is all right here," his sister Sara wrote in 1937. "Most heartfelt love from home."
Then, in 1940, the postcards from Ediger suddenly stopped coming. Julius Mayer would never hear from his family again.
Tragically, the Mayer siblings had never understood what Julius understood all too well, says his son Lothar: "[that] Hitler was taking over and Germany wasn't a safe place to live as a Jew." It was a failure that would haunt him throughout his life. "He struggled with the fact that his siblings wouldn't leave," Lothar Mayer says. "He felt he could have saved their lives if he could have persuaded them." As it was, he never even learned what became of them. As late as 1991, he sought information from the International Red Cross, but he died before getting an answer.
Now, the son has taken over where the father left off, and his trail has led to a vast, secretive archive in the central German town of Bad Arolsen. Known as the International Tracing Service, the facility holds files on more than 17.5 million people sent to Nazi concentration camps and labor camps during World War II, as well as on refugees who spread across the world in the war's aftermath. Housing more than 30 million pieces of paper in 16 miles of shelves, it is the largest repository of Holocaust documents in the world. Yet, despite persistent and loud objections, it has been closed to the public for decades.
Breakthrough. This week, however, at a meeting in the Netherlands, representatives from 11 nations will meet to finalize an agreement to open the facility. Four nations-France, Greece, Luxembourg, and Italy-still have to ratify the treaty, and if they do, as is expected, scholars hope to tap into a rich trove of documents. "For people working on the history of the concentration camps, of victims, of forced and slave labor, there could be great potential," says University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill history Prof. Christopher Browning. "We're holding our breath and hoping for the best. Any time you have such a large depository there's got to be something in there." And for families searching for lost relatives or ancestors, it means unfettered access to papers that could answer questions that have lingered for more than 60 years.
At the heart of the long dispute over Bad Arolsen is the question of whether the facility is an archive or a tracing service. It started as the latter. As the war was winding down, starting in 1943, the Red Cross collected millions of documents seized by the Nazis. The files, which included information from orphanages and refugee camps, helped survivors locate family members missing during and after the war. Anything with a name was considered relevant, from the colored index cards the Gestapo kept on millions of citizens to the identity cards issued to forced laborers. The deportation record of Dutch diarist Anne Frank is here, as are the lists of slave laborers rescued by Oskar Schindler.