May 18, 2007

From a vast Nazi archive, a panorama of misery in newly liberated Europe

Looking back at the first weeks after World War II, a French lieutenant named Henri Francois-Poncet despaired at ever fulfilling his mission to establish the fate of French inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

For the living skeletons who survived the Nazi terror, the Displaced Persons camp set up two miles (three kilometers) away offered little relief from misery.

People still died at the rate of 1,000 to 1,500 a day. Corpses were stacked in front of barracks, to be carted away by captured SS guards. "Bodies frequently remained for several days in the huts, the other inmates being too weak to carry them out," Francois-Poncet wrote in a report for the Allied Military Government.

"As most of the survivors could not even give their own names, it was useless trying to obtain information as to the identity of the dead," he wrote. He reported a meager 25 percent success rate.

When the Third Reich surrendered in May 1945, 8 million people were left uprooted around Europe. Millions drifted through the 2,500 hastily arranged DP camps before they were repatriated.

A bleak picture springs with stark immediacy from typewritten reports by the Allied officers, found in the massive archive of the International Tracing Service in the central German town of Bad Arolsen. The Associated Press has been given extensive access to the archive on condition that identities of victims and refugees are protected.

Far from scenes of joyful liberation that should have greeted the end of Nazi oppression, the files reveal desperation, loss and confusion, and overwhelmed and often insensitive military authorities.

Many had nowhere to go, their families among the 6 million Jews consumed in the Holocaust, their homes destroyed or handed out to new occupants. Those who wanted to get to Palestine were shut out by a British ban on Jewish immigration to the Israeli state-in-waiting.

"Owing to ill treatment by the Germans, most DPs have a distrust and fear of the Allied authorities," said a September 1945 report signed by British Lt. Col. C.C. Allan. "Many DPs have sunk into complete apathy regarding their future."

Liberated concentration camps were transformed into DP camps. Food was still scarce — often just coffee and wet black bread — and medical care was insufficient, said a report written for President Harry Truman.

Inmates were kept under armed guard to maintain order. They still wore their old striped, pajama-like concentration-camp-issue uniforms and slept in the same drafty barracks through a bitter winter.

Compounding their misery, they could watch through barbed wire fences and see German villagers living normal lives. In some places, those villagers were forced to tour the camps and help with the burials or at least face up to what their Fuehrer had wrought. But it was scant comfort to the victims.

"As things stand now, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them," wrote presidential envoy Earl G. Harrison in his famously quoted report to Truman after visiting that summer.

Known for its unparalleled collection of original concentration camp papers, the ITS, a branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross, also safeguards the world's largest documentation on postwar DP camps. It has nearly 3.4 million names on its card index of those who sought designation as refugees eligible for aid.

Until now, the documents have been used only to trace missing people and verify restitution claims. But now the full breadth of the archive, filling 16 miles (25 kilometers) of shelf space, is to be opened to historians for the first time. At a meeting last week in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the archive's 11-nation supervisory commission agreed to begin transferring electronic copies this autumn to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Within weeks after the war, U.N. agencies and volunteer charities took over the DP camps, processing applications for relief and emigration. By 1947, a quarter million Jews — a piteous remnant of European Jewry — shared space with displaced Eastern Europeans fearful of return to what was now the Soviet bloc.

Also among the DPs were ex-Nazis.

Adam Friedrich's 1949 application to the International Refugee Organization to join relatives in St. Louis, acknowledges that for three years he belonged to the Waffen SS, the combat arm of Hitler's dreaded paramilitary organization. He also noted he had been imprisoned for 20 months after the war.

An IRO official scribbled on his form, "The applicant was forced to report to the SS in Jan. '42. Served in the infantry and took part in fighting."

Friedrich was rejected.

But U.S. authorities did not have that information four years later when he applied again through the U.S. Refugee Relief Act. Then, Friedrich reported he had been in the German army but said nothing about his SS service.

Decades after he obtained citizenship, the U.S. Justice Department uncovered Friedrich's past. He was stripped of his citizenship in 2004, lost a Supreme Court appeal, and was due to be deported when he died last July.

At Bad Arolsen, questionnaires and affidavits are stuffed into 400,000 envelopes which, including families, refer to 850,000 displaced people, and fill binders spreading over several rooms of floor-to-ceiling shelves.

The last DP camps were closed in 1953, so "When you feel the paper tug as you try to pull it out, that means no one has opened it for 40 or 50 years," said Rudolf Michalke, head of the archive's postwar section.

Some files contain detailed histories of survivors and the tortures they endured. Refugees relate their futile struggle to resettle after the war, and their hopes of rebuilding their lives far from Europe.

An Austrian pastry chef recounts the hostility he found when he returned to Vienna. "Given the large and increasingly negative climate against Jews, I have not been able to get a job and am forced to emigrate," he testified, seeking passage to Australia.

Others describe their tormentors, hoping they will be prosecuted.

A Polish Jew writes about "Workmaster Batenszlajer," one of about a dozen guards he named as particularly cruel.

"He made selections. Those who lost their strength because they were exhausted and looked bad were picked out and shot down," he wrote. Batenszlajer would pick four girls at a time and hold them for several days. "He raped them and afterward he took them into a wood and shot them down."

In a world where racism was rampant, finding a new home was not easy, as one Yugoslav-born man with Asian features learned. "Being a Kalmyk of Mongolian race, (he) is ineligible for most Anglo-Saxon countries," authorities scrawled on his form.

"The doors are closed to unmarried mothers," said a note from strongly Catholic Ireland.

Lining up employment in a new country was critical for obtaining a visa. Yugoslav-born Nikolai Davidovic, a mathematics professor who spoke seven languages and authored two textbooks, left for America in 1950 with his wife Larissa — but only after she had been promised a job as a maid.

Friedrich was not the only war criminal to slip through the screening process. Dieter Pohl, of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, estimates that up to 250,000 Germans and Austrians had participated in the Holocaust, but only 5 to 10 percent were ever punished — most of them in the Soviet zone. Altogether, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people committed crimes against humanity, he said.

But no one knew who the perpetrators were. "More than 90 percent of files on Nazi war crimes were destroyed," Pohl said in a telephone interview.

The U.S. zeal in pursuing former Nazis came late. In the war's aftermath, the Americans were more concerned about the looming threat from Stalin's Soviet Union.

In 1979, the Justice Department created the Office of Special Investigations to pursue ex-Nazis who committed visa fraud by lying about their past. Since then, it has won 104 prosecutions and denied entry at the U.S. border to 175 people from its watch list of 70,000 suspected persecutors.

"We are still very busy with World War II cases," said OSI director Eli Rosenbaum. "We have always routinely checked Arolsen's DP holdings when we've been investigating someone," he told the AP.

But the ITS files are far from complete, and unlike Friedrich, most former SS members concealed their crimes with lies or half-truths.

John Demjanjuk, a Ukranian-born camp guard who became an auto worker in Cleveland, reported in his refugee papers, seen in Bad Arolsen, that he had been a "worker" in Sobibor. Although Sobibor later became infamous as a death camp in occupied Poland, few people had heard of it after the war because it had been dismantled in 1943. Demjanjuk was awarded DP status.

In 1977, the U.S. government moved to revoke his citizenship, misidentifying him as "Ivan the Terrible," a notorious guard at Treblinka extermination camp. He was extradited to Israel, tried and sentenced to death in 1988. The sentence was overturned on appeal and Demjanjuk returned to the U.S., where his citizenship was restored — only to be taken from him again for concealing his work for the Nazis. He is now fighting deportation.

The file on Valerian Trifa, who became the U.S. archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox church and who once gave the opening prayer for the U.S. Senate, sheds light on the deceptions he deployed to win a ticket to the U.S.

Trifa, a leader of Romania's fascist Iron Guard, told refugee officials he had been interned in Dachau and Buchenwald, but he said nothing about the privileges or protection he received from the Germans, according to Paul Shapiro, who investigated the Trifa case in the late 1970s for the Justice Department. Shapiro is now director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Shapiro saw Trifa's file at ITS for the first time when he visited Bad Arolsen last year with an AP reporter. "I knew the facts that are in here, except for the manner in which he was treated in terms of his Displaced Persons status," he said, flipping through aging pages in the manila folder. "It's quite shocking when you actually see it."

Trifa relinquished his citizenship in 1980 after it was discovered he gave a speech in 1941 in Bucharest that unleashed a pogrom in which more than 150 Romanian Jews were killed. He left the United States in 1984 for Portugal, where he died three years later.

"To see someone receiving citizenship based on lies is not a great thing," Shapiro said. "If this stuff had been available then (in the 1970s), his case would have been resolved earlier. He would have lived fewer years in the United States."

International Herald Tribune

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