Huge Nazi Archive Opened Holocaust Files Transferred to Museums in US, Israel

The International Tracing Service archive has transferred electronic versions of millions of Holocaust documents to museums in the US and Israel. But making the millions of digitized documents accessible to users poses an enormous challenge to the museums.

The transfer of millions of Holocaust files has begun.

The transfer of millions of Holocaust files has begun.

A huge Holocaust archive has transferred electronic versions of millions of files to museums in the United States and Israel as part of an agreement to open up its records.

The Washington-based US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial and museum, both received six computer hard drives containing electronic versions of around 20 million pages of Nazi-era documents late on Monday. The documents come from the International Tracing Service archive, which is located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and managed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"For over 50 years, the archive’s files have been used to document what happened to people persecuted by the Nazis and to provide information to survivors and their relatives," said ITS director Reto Meister. "After a long political process, we can now give researchers and the public access to the files.”

Freeing up the documents -- which come from over 50 concentration camps and prisons and include death books, transportation lists and medical reports -- is part of an ongoing process to open up the archive. Access has previously been restricted in order to protect victims' privacy. So far 12 million documents from the archive, which is thought to contain between 30 and 50 million documents, have been digitized.

Experts believe the archive will reveal unprecedented detail about the Holocaust. According to Associated Press reporters who were granted limited access, the invaluable contents include a carbon copy of an original list of Jews saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler, eye-witness accounts from liberated inmates of the genocide at Auschwitz, and hundreds of pages of personal "behavior" reports written by the SS about concentration camp inmates.

The 11 countries -- including Germany, Israel and the US as well as other European nations -- administering the vast archive agreed last year to open it up for research. However France, Italy and Greece have still not fully ratified the agreement to unlock the archive. US Holocaust Memorial Museum director Sara J. Bloomfield called on those countries Tuesday to quickly ratify the agreement.

However, simply organizing the material to make it accessible will be a major task for the museums. Part of the problem is the sheer quantity of material, which will take days to transfer to museum computers. Also, many of the documents are hand-written, some in hard-to-read old German script, and name spellings are inconsistent, making it difficult to convert files into a form which is digitally searchable.

Paul Shapiro, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, summed up the problem succinctly: "You can't Google them."



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