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Jewish Journal

Millions of Shoah records will finally be revealed

by Edwin Black

February 22, 2007 | 7:00 pm

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."

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