Published: 18 May 2006
In the quiet town of Bad Arolsen, in a former Nazi SS barracks, lies probably the most exhaustive record of human misery ever kept. The details, which can be found in more than 47 million files covering 16 miles of shelves, are contained in ordinary hardback writing books that might be found in any school classroom.
Punctiliously noted in the Totenbuch or Death Book kept at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria is the camp commandant's "present" to Hitler on the occasion of the Führer's birthday on 20 April 1942. Three hundred Russian prisoners were specially selected for execution to mark the event.
The death list covers how each prisoner was subjected to a so-called Genickschuss or neck shot - a single bullet fired from a pistol pressed against the base of the skull. The names, inmate numbers, dates and places of birth are meticulously recorded on each line. The slaughter started at 11.20 am, when the wordGenickschuss first appears, and is repeated 299 times every two minutes thereafter.
This week files containing details of some 17 million victims of the Nazi death camp and slave labour system have been made public for the first time.
During the past six decades they have been used exclusively by the Red Cross International Tracing Service to establish the fate of the millions who went missing under Nazi rule. The files were kept off limits to the public largely because of German objections about the need to protect victims' privacy. But last Tuesday the 11-nation commission which controls the archive finally agreed to open the files to historians for the first time. The data will provide fresh insights into the workings of the Nazi death and slave labour machine.
Ulrich Herbert, a historian at Freiburg University, said: "These are terrible stories from a terrible time. It is frustrating, even appalling, that these records have been kept off limits to researchers for so long."
The archives spell out the barbarity of Nazi rule inflicted on millions in terse but telling detail. One file records the plight of Katrina, a French woman arrested by the Gestapo for "complaining that she was involuntarily sterilised by the authorities after giving birth to a coloured bastard".
Another records the fate of a German banker sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1937 after an informant overheard him criticising the Nazi regime. He was given "25 strokes for laziness" in 1944 and a mouthful of "missing teeth" after interrogation.
There is also the story of a 31-year-old nurse who was forced to wear a black and yellow "Star of David" branding her as a Jewish "race defile". Her file notes: "The woman is a half-Jew who lives with her Aryan boyfriend. She acknowledges they have had sexual relations." The woman disappeared after being dispatched to Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Since 1945, the Red Cross has relied on the Bad Arolsen files to respond to more than 11 million requests from 62 countries for information about relatives who went missing under Nazi rule. Last year alone the number of queries was more than 150,000. The records have recently been used to help slave labour victims claim compensation. Some have been able to claim simply because camp de-lousing records enabled them to be identified.
Apart from providing galling historical detail about Nazi rule, Jewish groups say that the files will provide a powerful antidote to Holocaust denial.
Israel Singer, of the World Jewish Council, said: "The millions of written documents proving Nazi mass murder against Jews will be open for researchers. It is a strike against all Holocaust deniers."