The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum told survivors' groups last week that searches of the digital version of the Bad Arolsen archives it had obtained would take six to eight weeks to fulfill.
"People understood the challenges," said Jeanette Friedman, who represented the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants at a closed-door meeting Jan. 17 at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.
The inquiry process, launched that day, will integrate the 46 million documents the Holocaust museum already possesses with more than 18 million documents made available by the International Tracing Service, the agency based in Bad Arolsen, Germany.
The availability of the archives ends a decade-long political and legal battle to open the Bad Arolsen archives, which houses information on the fates of about 17.5 million Jews and non-Jews. Most of the documents now available through the museum relate to incarceration, persecution and concentration camps.
Archivists ran a slide presentation showing how an index card in the files could help David Bayer, a survivor who volunteers at the museum, track his Auschwitz identification card and a census of the Jewish ghetto in his birthplace, Kozience, Poland. The census was the only extant record of his entire immediate family, some of whom perished.
More documents relating to slave labor and to postwar witness testimony are slated to be delivered by 2010.
The digital archives were released simultaneously last year to the 11 nations that control the tracing service. Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, was the first to establish a request-processing service last week, although it will not have an online capability until next month.
Much of the material, delivered to the museums on hard drives packed into suitcases, is not yet digitally searchable; images of the documents and 50 million index cards that arrived between August and November of last year are in jpeg form.
Converting those images to searchable files will take much time and millions of dollars, officials of the U.S. Holocaust museum said at a news conference before the meeting with survivor groups.
"To make it machine-readable would take millions and millions," said Sara Bloomfield, the museum's director. "We don't have the time."
Instead, said Michael Haley Goldman, the director of the museum registry, the priority would be to answer survivor questions with trained staffers searching through the material. Top priority will be given to survivors with outstanding restitution claims, on the assumption that some information obtained through the search could facilitate the claims.
Of about 800 inquiries received even before the launch of the service, most had to do with survivors seeking information on the fate of families, Goldman said.
Officials said that in some cases, the archive material would provide death and burial information, which would help in insurance restitution cases where survivors need specific documentation. But officials also warned that in the vast majority of cases, such information was not recorded or preserved at the time.
Another imperative of the archives, Bloomfield said, was to add evidence at a time of a resurgence in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
"Keeping the International Tracing Service closed at a time when the president of a country says the Holocaust didn't happen is morally indefensible," she said, referring to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
About 30 representatives of survivor groups attended the closed briefing; Friedman said questions were mostly technical and calm. That made for a quiet denouement to a process that at times has been roiling.
Some survivors, particularly those still seeking restitution in various forms, had campaigned for instant, Internet-searchable access, and they wondered at the snail's pace of the effort to open the archives.
The nations controlling the International Tracing Service -- Belgium, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Britain and the United States -- had signed an accord in 1955 after assuming control of the archives from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Privacy concerns, particularly among the European nations and the Red Cross, kept it inaccessible, officials said. Pressure from survivor groups seeking evidence to bolster restitution claims led the tracing service to announce in 1998 that it would open the archives, but finding a formula acceptable to all was difficult.
Paul Shapiro, the director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, said some nations wanted to create a "worst common denominator" standard, applying each nation's most restrictive standards across the board. He added that the U.S. Holocaust museum successfully argued instead that each nation should apply its own standards upon receipt of the archives.
There were no restrictions on who could ask for information, museum officials said. So citizens of a nation that applies restrictive standards to sharing the information are free to submit inquiries to Yad Vashem or to the U.S. Holocaust museum, which do not.
Shapiro said that one restriction kept in place at the behest of some of the European nations -- he did not name them -- was that each nation maintain a single repository.
Museum officials suggested that the provision allowing each nation to distribute the materials according to its own laws and practices meant the museum was not bound by the restriction. However, the museum will not share the materials with other U.S. Holocaust centers for now, to avoid frustrating individuals searching for information, said spokesman Andy Hollinger.
Museum staffers are specially trained to search the Bad Arolsen documents and to integrate those searches with other archives in order to provide the most comprehensive possible responses, Hollinger said.
Another consideration, according to sources, is that commission members of the tracing service who still have privacy qualms would be angered if documents were available on the Internet. Disagreements now could hobble delivery of databases still held by the tracing service.
Ultimately, said Friedman, the goal is to integrate existing archives in the United States, Israel and Europe into a single searchable database, but that could take a decade.
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