Jewish Journal


February 22, 2007

Millions of Shoah records will finally be revealed


Udo Jost, archive manager, views papers at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Photo by Bernd Kammerer/AP

Udo Jost, archive manager, views papers at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Photo by Bernd Kammerer/AP

When Jews too weak to work were routinely marched from their concentration camp barracks into oblivion, when shrieking families with arms and fingers outstretched were torn apart during deportations, when the winds of politics and opportunity scattered refugees and survivors throughout the world, many rightfully thought that the story of their persecution and fate would be as indistinguishable as a single ash rising from a chimney.

Even though millions did not survive, much of their story did. The details are embedded within the miles of records housed by the International Tracing Service (ITS) located at Bad Arolsen, Germany.

But for 60 years those records have been secret, available only to survivors and their nuclear families tracing loved ones, and even then only after years of heartbreaking persistence.

After a decades-long international effort, the sensitive ITS archives will soon be pried open. The unlocking follows a hard-negotiated accord among the 11 nations that comprise the commission that owns the archive. Those countries are the United States, France, England, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland and Israel, plus the two former Axis powers, Italy and Germany.

The International Red Cross was given custody and control of the archive, but only pursuant to the agreement.

Only an estimated 25 percent of the prodigious ITS collection relates to Jews. The remainder covers the fate of Gypsies, Poles, Dutch and numerous other groups targeted for oppression and destruction.

The implications for Holocaust and Nazi-era research are staggering.

Among the many by-products of the ITS revelations is vast additional proof of IBM's minute-to-minute involvement in the 12-year Holocaust, new insights into the corporate beneficiaries of Germany's slave and forced labor programs, an explosion of evidence that insurance companies participated in and benefited from the decimation of the Jews and the dark details of persecution suffered by millions of individuals who would have otherwise disappeared into the bleak vastness of Hitler's war against humanity.

Some of the most important archival details of the nearly impenetrable archives have finally been revealed, exclusively to this writer.

At the forefront of the campaign to open the ITS files has been a passionate group of senior officials of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). These include director Sara J. Bloomfield; senior adviser Arthur Berger; Paul Shapiro, director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies; and the State Department's Edward O'Donnell, an ex-officio member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Berger, in an interview, recalled his part in the frustrating struggle to open the archive: "We tried for years to work quietly behind the scenes -- since 1991." He added, "Paul Shapiro went with a group, and they refused to even let him tour the archive."

A USHMM senior official, speaking on background, specified with irritation that the 11-member nature of the governing commission "would meet once per year for one day, each year in a different city. They received a dog-and-pony show from the ITS director, had a good lunch and went home. It was run like many a company board of directors."

Finally, Berger went public on March 7, 2006, issuing a press release openly criticizing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), charging, "the ITS and the ICRC have consistently refused to cooperate with the International Commission board and have kept the archive closed."

Momentum and pressure resulted in a multinational agreement initiated May 16, 2006, to finally "open the archives," allowing a full copy to reside in each nation's designated archive. USHMM officials took center stage, vowing that America's copy would be in their possession within months. Despite the inflated publicity, the digital transfer of the records has not happened and is not scheduled any time soon.

Bad Arolsen sources, in mid-January 2007, said the prodigious task of digitizing their mega-million record collection is progressing only slowly and is years from being complete. Sources on both sides of the Atlantic say the inter-governmental paperwork is not nearly complete.

The ICRC, for its part, has scoffed at the museum's tactics, including Berger's March 2006 press release. Asked if the press release attacking the Red Cross was accurate, one senior ICRC official in Geneva quipped, "I wouldn't believe everything you read."

Indeed, this reporter determined that USHMM guesswork had been the source of much of the inaccurate and unverified reporting in the media about ITS holdings. For example, Shapiro stated that the ITS held "30 [million]-50 million pages of records" divided into three collections: prisoner records; forced and slave labor; and displaced persons, but no one knew the details because the ITS has refused to reveal any information. Shapiro stated he based his remarks on "various statements by various people."

In point of fact, this reporter has exclusively determined that ITS records number approximately 33.6 million pages divided into four record groups:

Section 1, dubbed "Incarceration Records," concern concentration camps and other forms of imprisonment, totaling more than 4.42 million pages, dated 1933 to 1945, constituting 12.5 percent of the holdings.

Within Section 1, record subgroup 6 is a trove of prisoner cards organized by numbers and not names. These numbers were by and large assigned according to the Hollerith punch card system designed by IBM engineers. Forty-nine camps and ghettos are listed in this section, most assigned an alphabetically sequential number by the ITS. The Amersfoort police torture camp in Holland leads the list, numbered 1.1.1; the trio of Auschwitz camps in occupied Poland is 1.1.2, but those records hail mainly from the transport camp, with very little from the Birkenau death camp, and almost nothing from the Monowitz labor camp. The Warsaw Ghetto is listed as 1.1.4. Buchenwald is listed as 1.1.5.

Section 1's subgroup 1.2.1 includes prisoner transport lists that were organized by IBM Hollerith and generally referred to in Nazi documents as "Hollerith transfer lists." Subgroup 1.2.3 contains Gestapo registrations.

Section 2, dubbed "Forced Laborers," with documents dating from 1939 to 1947, includes corporate involvement and insurance matters, and totals more than 4.45 million pages, or 13.5 percent. These files include the names of companies that benefited from slave labor. They are divided mainly by the Allied zone of occupation that captured the files. The American Zone is subgroup 2.1.1; the British Zone is 2.1.2. Nazi employment bureau records, such as the Employment Exchange in Warsaw numbered 2.3.3, are also contained in this collection. An IBM customer site in almost every concentration camp organized slave labor through the Abteilung Hollerith or Hollerith Department in each camp's Labor Assignment Office. IBM personnel serviced the machines on site in the camps. These documents often carry IBM's stamp of authenticity, "Hollerith erfasst," that is, "registered by Hollerith." Sources with direct access to ITS files confirm that Hollerith punch cards or other Hollerith designations have been seen in many sections of the archive covering both wartime and postwar years. For example, postwar section bears the notation "Hollerith cards of children."

Among the millions of pages in Section 2 are many insurance records, covering sickness or health coverage of inmates, especially from local health insurance companies. Many of these so-called local health companies were, of course, part of larger, multinational insurance conglomerates. The local entities operated under disparate names that would not reveal their true ownership. Previously unknown but shown by the documents, wages of some laborers were handed over to local health insurance offices. Slave laborers in camps were, of course, paid no wages. But "forced laborers" taken to occupied lands were often paid a small stipend reduced by a traditional "withholding" to these local health insurance offices. This record section also features an abundant group of documents from a number of state-owned insurance firms, especially Austrian, Ukrainian and Belgian firms.

Section 2 will be one of the most explosive sections in Bad Arolsen's cavernous collection because it will not only reveal the extent to which commercial entities -- such as manufacturers -- profited from the camps, but also the extensive, heretofore unexplored, entrenched involvement of insurance companies. This involvement, once revealed, would catapult claims against the insurance firms far beyond what is now being discussed by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, whose research has methodically by-passed the most important and incriminating repositories.

The largest collection at Bad Arolsen is Section 3, titled "Post War Records," which features about 24.75 million pages, or 71 percent of the holdings. This section includes precious postwar interviews conducted at Displaced Persons camps by British, French and American forces. Included are so-called "C&M" records, that is "Care and Maintenance" of survivors. Here, names are named by the victims in the aftermath of their liberation, when memories were fresh. This would undoubtedly include testimony and recollections of asset seizures, economic disenfranchisement, aryanization, property loss, bank savings and insurance claims. It would also provide embarrassing insights into named collaborators.

Section 4, titled "Child Tracing Bureau," contains 9,900 pages dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of orphaned and separated youngsters that emerged from the smoke of the Nazi era.

However, despite the publicity stoked by the USHMM and the hoopla over a recent "60 Minutes" visit, the full transfer of these documents is years away. As of July 2006, more than 57 percent of 33.6 million pages had been digitized. But progress has slowed since the initial media reports. By mid-January 2007, only 63 percent of the collection had been readied for transfer. Section 1 records on camps and ghettos are scheduled to be complete by March 2007. Section 2, involving forced laborers, corporations, and insurance companies, is not expected to be complete until the end of 2007. The postwar documents in Section 3 may take three more years. A Bad Arolsen source says the archive is eager to complete its work but lacks funding from the German government, which, by intergovernmental agreement, pays for the Bad Arolsen operation. With the needed funding, ITS sources believe the job could be completed by the end of 2008. Without that funding, it might take an extra year or two, relying upon limited technical resources.

Because the ITS had previously focused only on individual victims, it never assembled the larger picture of which companies or entities were involved in Hitler's industrial-scale oppression. With digitizing, that is now possible. Assembling the big picture will be a problem for a host of major and even minor corporations, a gamut of insurance entities, and of course IBM, which automated and organized much of the process. Indeed, the slow pace is good news for them.

For IBM, progress at the ITS is both a blessing and curse. When the documents are completely digitized, the historical information shall emerge more clearly; but without the originals, IBM's revealing printed processing data forms and ever-present Hollerith stamps will be less obvious. That said, as the larger picture comes into focus, including labor and insurance information, the extent of IBM's involvement will become more detailed.

Ironically, IBM was instrumental in establishing the ITS archive. Because IBM designed and executed the Nazi's people-tracking systems used throughout Europe, the company was uniquely positioned to provide the tracing information on millions of victims. The company donated sets of Hollerith tabulators to the Red Cross and, as early as 1947, developed special punch cards to trace victims. The first German punch card was used by the Bavarian Red Cross in 1947 and then modified and extended by the evolving postwar entities that became the ITS.

Without the power of IBM technology, the terrible details of Nazi crimes embedded within the ITS archives could not been preserved, and could not have been revealed with such stunning depth.

Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of the award-winning "IBM and the Holocaust." His latest bestseller is "Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives." He can be reached at www.edwinblack.com.

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