May 14, 2007

Eleven-nation panel of nazi archive meets

The governing commission of a long-closed Nazi archive convened Monday to decide when and how to make its vast treasure of wartime documents accessible for the first time to historians.

The two-day annual meeting of the 11-nation commission, held at a 15th-century cloister in central Amsterdam, will cap a yearlong process to pry open the files of the International Tracing Service.

With the horror of the Holocaust still fresh, the files were sealed under a 1955 treaty for fear that unrestricted access to personal histories would violate the memory of the dead and the reputations of the survivors. They also were subject to German privacy laws. The files, maintained in Bad Arolsen, Germany, were used by the Red Cross mainly to trace missing people and later to validate restitution claims.

After years of pressure from survivor organizations, the commission voted last year to distribute digitally scanned copies of the documents to member states for research purposes.

The decision was cheered by survivors and relatives as potentially breaking the bottleneck in responding to their queries for information about Nazi persecutions. But it required ratification by all 11 nations - a process taking longer than anticipated. Seven countries have endorsed the treaty amendments - the United States, Israel, Poland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain. Ratification is still pending by Luxembourg, Greece, Italy and France.

The commission was considering a proposal to begin transferring scanned documents to research institutions under embargo until the ratification is complete, said a statement by the archive's management. Even then, access to the records will be limited under the terms of last year's agreement, which stipulated a single copy would be made available to each member state for use "on the premises of an appropriate archival repository."

Each government was expected to take into account "the sensitivity of certain information" the files may contain, the agreement said.

Several survivor organizations in the United States reportedly were objecting to the restricted access, saying the files should be available on the Internet and open to everyone. Only the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem have requested copies.

Reto Meister, the archive's director, said all documents relating to concentration camp internment and deportations have been scanned and indexed - about two-thirds of the estimated 30 million to 50 million pages. The archive also has a collection of postwar files on millions of displaced persons.

The documents "offer a unique window into that black chapter of recent history," he said in a statement. "Behind each record is a personal story that puts a face on the suffering caused by Nazi persecution."

Associated Press

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