The Nazi Chronicles
Closed for decades, the world's largest Holocaust archive now reveals its secrets
So in the early 1990s, survivor groups, historians, and museum officials in the United States began calling for reforms. Shapiro emerged as one of the ITS's sharpest critics, rallying the resources of his museum to try to pry the archives open. "I came into contact with many scholars who tried to access this documentation, and there was a stone wall," says Shapiro.
German government officials and ITS bureaucrats, meanwhile, argued that secrecy was necessary to protect the privacy of victims and that opening the records would violate Germany's strict data protection laws. After all, they argued, the Nazis imprisoned or executed people for political crimes, homosexuality, and other trumped-up charges. Bad Arolsen's files also contain the names of people who were forcibly sterilized or subjected to medical experiments. Opening the records to researchers and journalists, Jost says, could expose sensitive personal information. "Victims shouldn't be victimized twice," he says. Wippermann calls that argument "a bad excuse to excuse laziness and incompetence." Shapiro, although he has recently tempered his remarks, once called the archive's inaccesibility "a form of Holocaust denial."
Against a growing international assault, the stone wall is crumbling. At a closed conference last year, the German government agreed on a compromise-to digitally scan the entire collection and make the copies available to national archives in 11 nations, where researchers could examine them."We've come up with an agreement that will give each country adequate privacy protection and still guarantee access," says Ed O'Donnell, a former U.S. State Department special envoy for Holocaust issues.
Documenting death. So far, two thirds of the archive has been scanned. Yet genealogists and historians hoping for quick answers may be in for a letdown. Though the Nazis were enthusiastic recordkeepers, their crimes took place in more than a dozen countries, and victims spoke every language on the continent. The ITS has 849 different spellings of the name "Abramovich" alone. Even birthdates are unreliable. "People lied about their birthdays to seem older so they could survive selections at Auschwitz," notes Gabriele Wilke, an ITS archivist.
If Lothar Mayer's experience is any guide, the greatest benefit of the new ITS may be to families who have waited decades for answers. At the behest of a reporter, the facility expedited Mayer's request for information on his aunts and uncles. In August, mindful of the promise he had made to his father "never to forget," Mayer traveled with his wife, Carlyn, from Florida to Bad Arolsen to see what the request turned up. "This isn't some research project," he said. "This is my family I've never met. I want this for my children and my grandchildren."
The Mayers were ushered into a fluorescent-lit conference room, where an archivist brought out a thick folder. His hands trembling, Lothar Mayer opened the file. Out spilled the paper traces of lives cut brutally short. Blue Gestapo cards recorded names, birthdates, and arrest records. The real stories are buried under chilling euphemisms: "Sara Mayer ... emigrated abroad to unknown destination, April 30, 1942." "Berthold Mayer ... Evacuated April 30, 1942." A typed list shows that Mayer's uncle, David, was loaded onto a train to the Belzec concentration camp along with his wife and 16-year-old son.