Germany to Open Holocaust Archives

Germany has reversed its decades-long opposition to opening its Holocaust archive. The files contain information on more than 17 million people who were murdered or forced into slave labor by the Nazis.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives in Washington tomorrow for talks with President Bush. On Thursday, she'll go to New York to address the centennial gala of the American Jewish Committee. Her government is backing the release of one of the world's largest collections of Nazis related documents to historians. Until now, Germany had blocked the idea of opening up the archive because of privacy concerns.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Berlin.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Behind the locked doors of the Bod Arlson(ph) Archive are rooms lined end to end with filing cabinets and black binders housing roughly 50 million Nazis documents, including the personal histories of some 17 million people.

Mr. UDO YOST(ph) (Director, Bod Arlson Archives): (Foreign Language spoken)

MARTIN: Walking through one of the Bod Arlson archive rooms, the director Udo Yost points out the cabinets of concentration camp files listed in alphabetical order, starting with Auschwitz. Yost opens a faded black book with the words (foreign language spoken), or death book printed on the cover.

Mr. YOST: (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. YOST: That's the birthday of Adolph Hitler.

MARTIN: That's the day SS honored Hitler by executing 300 inmates. But the Nazis' obsessive bookkeeping has proven useful for some survivors. Yost 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. YOST: (Through Translator) For this one prisoner, this could be the only paper that can prove that he was an inmate there, because the Nazis have 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 Bod Arlson was set up for after World War II, to help survivors of the Holocaust and Nazis labor camp 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 Minister of Justice.

Ms. BRIGITTE ZYPRIES (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 ten countries that control the archives are high enough to ease restrictions.

Peter Loytloff(ph) is a retired detective from Kreischa in Central Germany who used the Bod Arlson archive to trace his father's possible internment in a Nazi labor camp. He supports the idea of opening up the idea of opening up the archive as long as families are consulted before any information is published.

Mr. PETER LOYTLOFF (Former Police Detective): (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: DeidreBerger 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 archives 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 Udo Yost says if more public access is granted, the privacy of the victims must remain the top priority.

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

MARTIN: Representatives from the 11 countries governing the archives, including Germany and the U.S., will meet on May 16 in Luxemburg to vote on the issue.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

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