May 13, 2006

Archive unlocks secrets of Holocaust bureaucracy

By Tom Armitage

BAD AROLSEN, Germany (Reuters) - The death register from
the Mauthausen concentration camp contains rows of neatly
printed names. The times of execution are each two minutes
apart. The date is April 20, 1942 -- Adolf Hitler's 53rd
birthday.

"Every second minute there is another prisoner and this
goes on for pages," says Udo Jost, an archivist at the
International Tracing Service (ITS) which looks after the
world's biggest collection of documents from World War Two.

"They shot 300 prisoners for Hitler's birthday present: not
just shot but then registered them by name."

Millions of documents, like this register from the camp
near Linz in Austria, sit in the cellars of a converted hotel
in the central German town of Bad Arolsen, testament to the
chillingly efficient bureaucracy of the Nazi regime.

Some 17 million people are named in the documents -- those
who were murdered, those who survived the concentration camps
and then the millions who were forced to work on farms and in
factories under Hitler's employment policies.

The ITS, under the management of the International
Committee of the Red Cross, has been administering the archive
and answering queries for around 60 years. Until now, Germany
had staunchly opposed opening the archive to a wider public.

But under pressure from Holocaust groups, authorities said
last month they would allow historians to use the archive, and
also give a digital copy of the 47 million documents it
contains to each of the 11 nations which oversee the work of
the ITS.

The 11-country board will meet from next Tuesday to alter
the ITS' mandate, the first step in the process of unlocking
the store. Changing the mandate requires unanimous approval.

Much of the archive's material is highly sensitive.

"Believe me," Jost says pointing to drawer after drawer of
workers' documents in the basement of the ITS building, "there
was no firm of any size which did not use slave laborers."

MIND-NUMBING BUREAUCRACY

The racks of green movable shelves on the second floor of
the archive look like those one might expect to find in a tax
office or a library.

The contents, gathered since the end of World War Two from
archives across Germany, Russia and the former communist
eastern European bloc, have never been seen by the public.

A pink "imprisonment order" details how a Pole ended up in
a concentration camp for his affair with a German woman; a
sheaf of papers neatly typed by a Gestapo officer records a
woman's protest at the sterilization of her mixed-race son,
Gregor.

The detail is often absurd.

A lined page with neat handwriting tells how prisoners at
the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in modern Poland, were
obliged to search each other for lice.

"Block 8, 14 January 1945, 784-strong. 37 lice found in 13
prisoners," the note reads, listing the affected inmates.

"One laughs but in this case, this individual was recorded
as having one louse on this day in this camp," Jost says,
pointing to a name on the list.

"At least we can confirm that on this day he was in
Gross-Rosen and for that fact alone then he would have got
7,500 euros ($9,539) from the forced labor fund."

The German government and industry started paying
compensation to slave workers and other Holocaust survivors
around five years ago.

Not only does the archive contain information on
concentration camps like Auschwitz and Belsen, as well as the
fates of millions of Jews, Roma and other victims of Hitler's
regime, it also contains lists of postwar displaced persons.

Arthur Berger, an adviser at the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum, said this area had yet to be researched.

"The basic outlines of history are not going to be changed
by this," he told Reuters. "But it is the details, the human
interest in these stories which is so important. There is a new
richness that is added and that is something that was missing."

PAINSTAKING WORK

Lorries full of paperwork arrived at the center from across
the Allied zones after the war and a team of over 1,000 sifted
through them to create a complex card register of all the
names.

Three rooms alone are stacked full of cardboard drawers,
each containing hundreds of cards marked with name after name.

Among these are former chancellors Konrad Adenauer and
Willy Brandt, listed under his given name Herbert Frahm. Both
men opposed Hitler.

Archivists believe Bad Arolsen serves to keep the memory of
the Holocaust alive.

"Working here you get a different sense of this period in
history and also of the responsibility which we have as the
children born in the postwar period ... to keep memories alive
of these people, these victims," 52-year-old Jost said.

Decades after the end of the war, the requests for
information continue to pour in. This has created a backlog at
Bad Arolsen and added to the calls for the archive to be opened
up to other organizations.

"They are three years behind in giving answers," Berger
said. "The survivors are elderly now and in their 80s and 90s
and so they deserve answers quickly.

"We owe a moral debt to the families and every country has
to try to help them find out finally what happened to their
relatives."