U.S.-German Flare-Up Over Vast Nazi Camp Archives

By ROGER COHEN

New York Times

February 20, 2006

Tempers are flaring over a United States demand to open to scholars and researchers a huge repository of information about the Holocaust contained in the files of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany.

Based in part on documents gathered by Allied forces as they liberated Nazi concentration camps, the stock of files held by the organization stretches for about 15.5 miles, and holds information on 17.5 million people. It amounts to one of the largest closed archives anywhere.

The collection is unique in its intimate personal detailing of a catastrophe, which is what makes the question of open access so delicate. The papers may reveal who was treated for lice at which camp, what ghoulish medical experiment was conducted on which prisoner and why, who was accused by the Nazis of homosexuality or murder or incest or pedophilia, which Jews collaborated and how they were induced to do so.

Since the end of World War II the Tracing Service, operating as an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has used the files to help people trace the fates of relatives who disappeared into the murderous vortex of Nazi terror. Now, more than 60 years after the end of the war, the United States says that task is largely done and it is time to open up the archive, copy it so that it can also be stored in other countries and make it available to historians.

"The U.S. government favors opening up all records on the Holocaust," said Edward O'Donnell, the special envoy for Holocaust issues at the State Department. "Our objective is to open the archive, and we will continue to push."

But that push has met a wall of legal and procedural objections — from Charles Biedermann, the Red Cross official who has been director of the Tracing Service for two decades, and from the German and Italian governments. The atmosphere within the 11-nation international commission that oversees the operation has become poisonous.

At meetings to discuss the opening of the archive, German officials have asked whether it is really in anyone's interest to have accusations about particular Jews being murderers or homosexuals made public. Because German privacy laws are much stricter than those in the United States, German authorities are concerned that an opening could lead to lawsuits charging that personal information was handed out illegally.

Wide access to the papers could also provoke new claims for compensation.

"This is a scandal and a big scar on the image of Germany," said Sara Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which has been eager to secure copies of the files.

Paul Shapiro, the director of advanced Holocaust studies at the museum, accused Germany of "abusing efforts to achieve consensus" and "exerting a stranglehold on the process." He added, "Hiding this record is a form of Holocaust denial."

Such strong words are at odds with the generally positive tenor of German-American relations on Holocaust matters, even through negotiations as elaborate as those that led to Germany's agreement in 2000 to compensate former slave laborers of the Nazis.

Germany is outraged at the suggestion that it may be dragging its feet. "I object to the assertion that we have something to hide or are not forthcoming," said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to the United States. "That insinuation is false."

The clash has some of its roots in the complex history and labyrinthine legal structure of the Tracing Service. Set up late in the war, it has long been administered under the terms of the 1955 Bonn Agreements, which restored German sovereignty.

That treaty says the facility must "take all reasonable steps to avoid divulging information about a person or persons which might prejudice the interests of the person or persons concerned or of their relatives."

In essence, it confines access to information to the persecuted themselves, their relatives or legal representatives. But the accord also says all of the governments in the 11-nation governing commission have the right to inspect documents. Those countries are the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Israel, Poland and Luxembourg.

Germany and Mr. Biedermann say that for the archives to be opened, the treaty must be amended. That requires a unanimous vote and subsequent approval of national legislatures. The process would take years even if an elusive unanimity could be secured.

"As director, I must fulfill my orders," Mr. Biedermann said. "My superior is the I.C.R.C., my ruling body the 11 governments. If they decide the records can be opened and copies given to other countries, and if the issue of legal liabilities is addressed, of course I will comply. But right now there is no mandate for historical research."

Last month, the director posted a statement, now withdrawn, on the Tracing Service's Web site, saying that handing over copies of the files to others was "neither morally nor legally justifiable at present."

The United States, while ready to work for an amendment of the Bonn Agreements, is impatient. It argues that it never ceded ownership rights of the papers at Bad Arolsen, that all 11 governments have the right to inspect them and that no absolute legal impediment exists to the immediate copying and transfer of the files.

But the German government, having already paid out more than $80 billion in reparations, is concerned that questions of legal liability be thoroughly clarified before Bad Arolsen is opened up and its files made available elsewhere.

"We have to address the question of who will be allowed to do what with this data and who will be legally responsible if somebody abuses this," Mr. Ischinger said. "There are layers of legal difficulties."

The legal issues are indeed complex. But six decades after the war, it seems clear that opening up Bad Arolsen would play a critical role in filling in the details of the vile tapestry of Nazi crimes. "We need to connect all the dots," Ms. Bloomfield said.

Besides, the Tracing Service is swamped. Its budget, provided by Germany, has been cut as part of national austerity measures. Its staff has been reduced to about 360 from more than 400. Its backlog of unanswered tracing inquiries exceeds 400,000, partly because of a wave of questions on slave-labor compensation that had to be answered. People demanding to know what happened to their relatives sometimes go years without a response.

Its process of making digitized copies of papers has been painfully slow; only 55 percent of documents have been copied electronically. This copying, a necessary prelude to any transfer of information, will take two more years, Mr. Biedermann says. That appears to be more time than the United States is prepared to wait. Last June, at a meeting in Warsaw of the 20-country Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, a statement was issued calling for "immediate steps to be taken to open the archive" at Bad Arolsen "to scholars and other researchers." It said the 11-nation international commission should "address this matter on an urgent basis."

But no urgency has been apparent, despite the fact that all 11 countries in the commission overseeing Bad Arolsen are members of the 20-nation Task Force. A meeting of lawyers from the commission is scheduled for later this month in Luxembourg. It will be followed by a gathering in May of leading officials, including Mr. O'Donnell, who made clear he would like to see a resolution of the dispute then.