Nazi secrets now open to Holocaust victims

By Barry Schweid The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – After decades of holding back, Germany took a major step yesterday toward opening Nazi records on 17 million Jews, slave laborers and other Holocaust victims to historians and relatives long anxious for conclusive information about their fate.

Germany pledged to work with the United States to ensure the opening of the archives, which are housed in the German town Bad Arolsen. Eleven nations oversee the 30 million to 50 million documents and are to meet in Luxembourg next month to consider amending a 1955 treaty that has, effectively, limited access and copying.

“We still have negotiations to do,” the American special envoy for Holocaust issues, Edward B. O’Donnell, said in an interview. “Our goal is to reach an agreement as soon as possible.”

Approval in Luxembourg would require agreement by all 11 countries. The parliaments of several of the countries would have to give their approval, as well.

At a news conference yesterday at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said her country would work with the United States on opening the archives. Until now, Germany has resisted, citing privacy concerns.

In Jerusalem, Holocaust specialist Shlomo Aharonson, a historian at Hebrew University, said, “They have shown good will but that doesn’t mean the problem has been solved.”

Aharonson said the archives are supposed to contain all the names of those who died in World War II, both Jews and non-Jews.

The announcement by Zypries culminated a 20-year effort by the Holocaust Museum, the United States, France, Poland and some other countries to pry the archives open.

Negotiations intensified in the past four or five years and took on even greater momentum in the past two years, said Arthur Berger, spokesman for the museum.

In a meeting yesterday with museum director Sarah Bloomfield, Zypries said Germany had changed its position and would immediately seek revision of the accord governing the archives. The process should take no more than six months, the minister said.

Opening the archives would enable many survivors and families of victims of the Nazis to find out with more certainty than ever before what happened to their relatives.

“We are losing the survivors, and anti-Semitism is on the rise so this move could not be more timely,” Bloomfield said in an interview.

She said the move was “something of moral and historical importance in a critical time.”

“Overall, it makes it possible to learn a lot more about the fate of individuals and to learn a lot more about the Holocaust itself – concentration camps, deportations, slave-enforced labor and displaced persons,” Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s center for advanced holocaust studies, said in a separate interview.

Speaking in German, Zypries said, “We now agree to open the data in Bad Arolsen in Germany. We now assume the data will be safeguarded by those countries that copy the material and use it, and now that we have made this decision we want to move forward.” Her remarks were translated into English for reporters.

Germany’s privacy law is one of the most restrictive among the 11 countries, Shapiro said. Remaining safeguards, he said, might limit duplicating a document or prevent using the name of someone cited without the person’s permission, he said.

Dissemination through the Internet also may be tightly restrained. However, privacy laws of the other countries will now prevail, he said. Most are less restrictive than Germany’s.

Bloomfield called the decision “a great step, a really important step.” She said, “I will be completely thrilled when I get the material in the archives.”

For 60 years, the International Red Cross has used the archived documents to trace missing and dead Jews and forced laborers, who were systematically persecuted by Nazi Germany and its confederates across central and eastern Europe before and during World War II.

But the archives have remained off-limits to historians and the public.

International Red Cross Committee spokesman Antonella Notari said that body is not on the 11-member decision-making panel and is not against opening the archives, but believes personal information needs to be treated carefully. The international body opened its own archives a decade ago, she said.

“It should definitely be open for historical research and there are ways to do that with respect for personal data,” said Notari, chief spokeswoman of the ICRC in Geneva.

Besides Germany and the United States, the other countries involved are Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland.