Nazi Archive Goes Public

Some 47 million documents on the Nazi Holocaust are being made public by the International Committee of the Red Cross. They'd been kept private in Germany to protect the Holocaust victims.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

After years of wrangling, one of the world's largest archives of information about the Nazi Holocaust finally became public in Germany yesterday. The 47 million documents, which reportedly fill 16 miles of shelving, have all kinds of details on victims of forced labor, concentration camps, political prisoners, details like the exact time of execution and even the number of lice on prisoners' heads.

Our own BPP newscaster Rachel Martin, who you just heard from, actually went to these archives back in May of 2006, back when the debate over whether to make them public was sort of heating up.

Rachel, this - they made the decision awhile ago, as I understand it…

RACHEL MARTIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: …to open them up, but it's just now happening. What was the delay?

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, it's a group of 11 countries that signed this treaty that may actually - mostly European states. They oversee these archives in southern Germany where all this information is held. And what the holdup was basically is that Germany wasn't so convinced that the other European countries have high enough privacy standards.

The big holdup was that German officials were worried that there's a lot of private information in these documents and archives. And right now, it's being used - primarily the archives are used by families. They don't have direct access, but they use the center, and the center does research on their behalf. And the whole thing is that researchers and historians have said we need access to this to - for our work, for history, for historical sake. And they were worried that those historians and researchers wouldn't take those privacy concerns into consideration.

BURBANK: Because now - and by the way, it's like 17 million people or something - this stuff…

MARTIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: You've actually been - have you actually been a room with these files?

MARTIN: Yeah. It's buildings and buildings, files and files. I mean, it's completely overwhelming, the amount of data. A lot has been written about the obsessive detail orientation of the Nazi regime. And you can really see it in these archives. Little note cards for each and every prisoner that's ever stepped foot in all the concentration camps, detailing why they were arrested -being gay, being a gypsy, being a Jew - and their health condition, as it changes even day to day. I mean, it's overwhelming.

BURBANK: Were there people that - who had, you know, family members who were part of the Holocaust who actually didn't' want this stuff opened up? Because now, I guess, I could just go find out about anybody…

MARTIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: …and that's kind of private information.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. There were families that said, you know, we don't support this idea, that we prefer to have a tighter control of it. But the overwhelming majority of voices in this and lobbying organizations, particularly from the United States, said, you know, the privacy standards are high enough. We'll make sure this information won't be abused, and it's better for everyone if this information is released.

BURBANK: Well, it's kind of interesting, too, that this is somehow the purview of the International Red Cross. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Yeah. These archives were put under the bailiwick of the International Red Cross shortly after the war. It was - the International Red Cross had the capability to kind of collate all this information. So…

BURBANK: Well, this piece that you did talks about that - the sort of kinds of documents that are held in the archive, and also some of the back story behind this decision by the IRC - IRCC? IRRC, International Red Cross?

MARTIN: International Association of Red Cross.

BURBANK: Okay. Anyway, let's hear some of that piece.

(Soundbite of clanking sound)

MARTIN: Behind the locked doors of the Bad Arolsen archive are rooms lined end to end with filing cabinets and black binders, housing roughly 50 million Nazi documents, including the personal histories of some 17 million people.

Mr. UGO JOST (Director, Bad Arolsen, Germany): (German spoken)

MARTIN: Walking through one the Bad Arolsen archive rooms, the director, Ugo Jost, points out the cabinets of concentration camp files listed in alphabetical order, starting with Auschwitz. Jost opens a faded black book with the words (German spoken), or death book, printed on the cover.

Mr. JOST: (Through translator) Here's the cause of death: execution - every two minutes, one inmate. Here, it goes on. Name and first name. And now, look at the day.

Mr. JOST: The birthday of an Adolf Hilter.

MARTIN: That's the day the S.S. honored Hitler by executing 300 inmates. But the Nazi's obsessive bookkeeping has proven useful for some survivors. Jost points to a medical log registering the number of lice on the heads of prisoners in Block Number 8 in the Gross-Rosen Camp, including an inmate with a bizarrely significant head bug.

Mr. JOST: (Through translator) For this one prisoner, this could be the only paper that could prove that he was inmate there, because the Nazis destroyed all the other papers. That means that if he hadn't have had this one louse on this day, nobody could prove he was at Gross-Rosen.

MARTIN: This is what the archive at Bad Arolsen was set up for after World War II, to help survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi labor camps prove their incarceration, or help victims' families trace a relative. For years, several countries led by the United States have been pushing to open the archive for historical research. But Germany has always had privacy concerns, says Brigitte Zypries, Germany's minister of justice.

Ms. BRIGITTE ZYPRIES (Federal Minister of Justice, Germany): (Through translator) You have to understand that there is so much material about individual lives and destinies. When all of this gets published, all of a sudden, it will have massive consequences for victims and their families.

MARTIN: The Nazis made all sorts of allegations against their victims to justify their arrest, and wrote these allegations in prisoner files as though they were fact. It's this kind of personal detail that Germany has wanted to protect. Germany says it has now been assured that the privacy standards in the other 10 countries that control the archive are high enough to ease restrictions.

Peter Leutloff(ph) is a retired detective from Crusia(ph) in central Germany, who used the Bad Arolsen archive to trace his father's possible internment in a Nazi labor camp. He supports the idea of opening up the archive, as long as families are consulted before any information is published.

Mr. PETER LEUTLOFF (Retired Detective, Germany): (Through translator) I think it's really up to the people to decide whether they want their data investigated and released or not. Considering that, I think it's good that historians get access to the archive. They have to piece together a complete history of what happened.

MARTIN: Deidre Berger is the Berlin director for the American Jewish Committee. She says now that most of the victims of the Holocaust have passed away, it's time to use the archive as a historical resource.

Ms. DEIDRE BERGER (Berlin Director, American Jewish Committee): I think that it is possible that we'll learn more about the medical attempts of the Nazis, the slave labor and forced labor system, but it will take some time, obviously, for researchers to go in and to start working on subjects that they haven't been able to fully understand without access to these archives.

MARTIN: But some archive experts and top officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross say there hasn't been enough discussion on who should have access and for what purpose. Archive director Ugo Jost says if more public access is granted, the privacy of the victims must remain the top priority.

Mr. JOST: (Through translator) There is no doubt that all this information needs to be analyzed, but in a way that the dignity of the people represented in these files doesn't get compromised.

(Soundbite of music)

BURBANK: That is our own Rachel Martin reporting, a piece that aired MORNING EDITION back in May of 2006.

You know, I can't help but think if you walked Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or somebody else who questions the veracity of the Holocaust, just walk them down to the 16 miles of paperwork and say, take a look at that, buddy.

Rachel, thank you for that reporting.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

BURBANK: Interesting stuff. We'll kind of keep following that and see what happens with all that information now that it is public.

Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, we'll have a conversation with director Noah Baumbach about his new movie "Margot at the Wedding," and we'll see if someone can make use care about Abu Dhabi buying up a big part of Citigroup. That's coming up on the BPP.

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