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.
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.
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.
"It's been a long, long way," says Mayer with a sigh. "Emotionally, to see a letter from my father from 1946 was the most heart-rending. To see an original document really resonates. It is phenomenal."
But, disappointingly, the file doesn't include any information on deaths, only deportations. "I was hoping to find out when they died, what was the cause of death," Mayer says. "This doesn't give me the closure I was looking for."
He might, however, have made a grim guess. Belzec, a German concentration camp in what is now southeastern Poland, was one of the Nazis' most efficient killing machines. Between March 17, 1942, and December 1942, at least half a million Jews were gassed and incinerated there, usually within hours of their arrivals.
This story appears in the May 21, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.