Museum launches search service for newly released Holocaust archives.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
igital technology will allow
Holocaust survivors, research-
ers and others access to one of
the largest troves of Nazi-era documents
— but at a pen-and-paper pace.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
told survivors' groups in January that
searches of the digital version of the Bad
Arolsen archives it had obtained would
take six to eight weeks to fulfill.
"People understood the challenges:'
said Jeanette Friedman, who repre-
sented the American Gathering of
Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their
Descendants at a closed-door meeting
Jan. 17 at the Holocaust museum.
The inquiry process, launched that day,
will integrate the 46 million documents
the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
already possesses with more than 18
million documents made available by the
International Tracing Service, the agency
based in Bad Arolsen, Germany.
The availability of the archives ends
a decade-long political and legal battle
to open the Bad Arolsen archives, which
houses information on the fates of about
17.5 million Jews and non-Jews.
Most of the documents now available
through the museum relate to incar-
ceration, persecution and concentration
Archivists ran a slide show showing how
an index card in the files could help David
Bayer, a survivor who volunteers at the U.S.
museum, track his Auschwitz identifica-
tion card and a census of the Jewish ghetto
in his birthplace, Kozience, Poland. The
census was the only existing record of his
entire immediate family, some of whom
More documents relating to slave labor
and to postwar witness testimony are
slated to be delivered by 2010.
Those who want to make an inquiry can
call (866) 912-4385 or go to www.ushmm.
The digital archives were released simul-
taneously last year to the 11 nations that
control the tracing service. Yad Vashem,
Israel's Holocaust memorial, was the first
to establish a request-processing service in
January, although it will not have an online
capability until sometime this month.
Much of the material delivered to the
An archivist stands amid the shelves at Bad Arolsen, Germany.
museums on hard drives packed into suit-
cases is not yet digitally searchable; images
of the documents and 50 million index
cards that arrived between August and
November of last year are in jpeg form.
Converting those images to searchable
files will take much time and millions
of dollars, officials of the U.S. Holocaust
Museum said at a news conference before
the meeting with survivor groups.
"To make it machine-readable would
take millions and millions," said Sara
Bloomfield, the museum's director. "We
don't have the tim'
Instead, said Michael Haley Goldman,
the director of the museum registry, the
priority would be to answer survivor
questions with trained staffers searching
through the material.
Top priority will be given to survivors
with outstanding restitution claims on
the assumption that some information
obtained through the search could facili-
tate the claims.
Of about 800 inquiries received even
before the launch of the service, most had
to do with survivors seeking information
on the fate of families, Goldman said.
Officials said that, in some cases, the
archive material would provide death
and burial information, which would
help in insurance restitution cases where
survivors need specific documentation.
But officials also warned that in the vast
majority of cases, such information was
not recorded or preserved at the time.
Another imperative of the archives,
Bloomfield said, was to add evidence at a
time of a resurgence in anti-Semitism and
"Keeping the International Tracing
Service closed at a time when the presi-
dent of a country says the Holocaust didn't
happen is morally indefensible," she said,
referring to Iranian leader Mahmoud
About 30 representatives of survivor
groups attended the closed briefing;
Friedman said questions were mostly
technical and calm. That made for a quiet
denouement to a process that at times has
Some survivors, particularly those still
seeking restitution, had campaigned for
instant, Internet-searchable access and
they wondered at the snail's pace of the
effort to open the archives.
"We need closure; we need to know
what happened:' said David Schaecter,
president of the Florida-based Holocaust
Survivors Foundation-USA, who was not
at the meeting but has been one of the
most outspoken critics of the process.
The nations controlling the International
Tracing Service — Belgium, Greece,
France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Israel,
the Netherlands, Poland, Britain and the
United States — had signed an accord in
1955 after assuming control of the archives
from the International Committee of the
Privacy concerns, particularly among
the European nations and the Red Cross,
kept it inaccessible, officials said. Pressure
from survivor groups seeking evidence to
bolster restitution claims led the tracing
service to announce in 1998 that it would
open the archives, but finding a formula
acceptable to all was difficult.
Paul Shapiro, the director of the U.S.
museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust
Studies, said some nations wanted to cre-
ate a "worst common denominator" stan-
dard, applying each nation's most restric-
tive standards across the board.
Shapiro said the U.S. Holocaust Museum
successfully argued instead that each
nation should apply its own standards
upon receipt of the archives.
There were no restrictions on who could
ask for information, museum officials said.
So citizens of a nation that applies restric-
tive standards to sharing the information
are free to submit inquiries to Yad Vashem
or to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which
Shapiro said that one restriction kept
in place at the behest of some of the
European nations — he did not name
them — was that each nation maintain a
U.S. Holocaust Museum officials sug-
gested that the provision allowing each
nation to distribute the materials accord-
ing to its own laws and practices meant
the museum was not bound by the restric-
However, the museum will not share the
materials with other U.S. Holocaust centers
for now to avoid frustrating individuals
searching for information, said spokesman
Museum staffers are specially trained
to search the Bad Arolsen documents and
to integrate those searches with other
archives in order to provide the most corn-
prehensive possible responses, Hollinger
Another consideration, according to
sources, is that commission members of
the tracing service who still have privacy
qualms would be angered if documents
were freely available on the Internet.
Disagreements now could hobble delivery
of databases still held by the tracing ser-
Survivor groups say the goal is to inte-
grate existing archives in the United States,
Israel and Europe into a single searchable
database, but that could take a decade. CI
February 7 • 2008