The Nazi Chronicles
Closed for decades, the world's largest Holocaust archive now reveals its secrets
The documents are at once chilling and odd. At the Gross Rosen concentration camp, featured in the film Schindler's List, camp officers managed to destroy almost everything as the Allies approached. But they overlooked the camp's medical offices-and hundreds of delousing records. "Only because [a person] had a louse do we know he was a prisoner on that day in that camp," says ITS archivist Udo Jost.
In another cabinet, precise, handwritten records of executions fill pages of lined composition notebooks from the Mauthausen camp. Forty-eight people were shot at two-minute intervals on April 20, 1942-a present to Hitler on his birthday. "Anyone else would have just shot them and buried them in a mass grave," Jost says, sliding the cabinet closed. "Not the SS. They wrote it all down."
Obstacles. Despite these treasures, the ITS has made no effort to advertise its existence. Outside scholars were not granted access, and the facility's director consistently resisted international efforts to open it. "Humanitarian causes always come first," says Jost, "and it doesn't help when resources are diverted from victims to historical research." By the time Lothar Mayer wrote on his father's behalf in 1991, the service had become an impenetrable bureaucracy. By 2005, it was over 400,000 requests behind. The backlog, says Günter Saathof of Germany's Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future, is "a shame and a scandal."
It was not always this way. At one point, after the war, more than 1,200 ITS staffers, working out of an abandoned SS barracks, were efficiently fielding hundreds of thousands of requests. But as time went on, the number of inquiries from desperate survivors like Julius Mayer trickled off. Either families had been reunited, or they were gone. So under Director Charles-Claude Biedermann, the tracing service began acting more like an archive-quietly collecting and copying materials from other archives all over Europe. Still, though, it remained closed. "Money went to collecting documents, not to sharing information," says Saathof, who has argued for opening the facility to researchers.
At the same time, Bad Arolsen was becoming increasingly inefficient for those like Lothar Mayer, who were eligible to use it. The wait for information was typically five years and often longer. Eighty percent of requests first had to be translated into German. Names not related to the inquiry had to be painstakingly blacked out. And any changes in policy had to be approved by a committee of diplomats from 11 nations who met only two days each year. The result? "It was a lazy bureaucrat farm," says Wolfgang Wippermann, a Holocaust historian at Berlin's Free University.
After the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s, the ITS was hit with another wave of requests: this time from former forced laborers in Eastern Europe who needed their wartime records to claim compensation from German companies and government funds. Meanwhile, survivors of the Holocaust were dying at a rate the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates at 10 percent a year. "To tell an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor that there's a backlog of 300,000 cases is simply not satisfactory," says Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.