The decision by the Red Cross unit that controls the documents eventually will offer new perspectives on the WWII massacre.
By Arthur Max The Associated Press
Article Last Updated: 05/16/2007 01:31:40 AM MDT

Amsterdam, Netherlands – Copies of documents from a secretive Nazi archive, locked away in a quiet German town for more than 50 years, will be released to Holocaust institutions within a few months under an agreement reached Tuesday.

The documents will give historians an intimate view of the systematic slaughter of millions during the Holocaust and will let survivors and victims’ families search for their histories – as recorded by their tormentors.

The 11-nation governing body of the International Tracing Service, which runs the archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, voted to sidestep legal obstacles and begin distributing electronic copies of the documents to member states as soon as they are ready.

The archive contains Nazi records on the arrest, transportation, incarceration, forced labor and deaths of millions of people from the year the Nazis built their first concentration camp in 1933 to the end of the war in May 1945. It also has a vast collection of postwar records from displaced-persons camps.

The name index refers to 17.5 million victims, and the documents fill 16 miles of shelves.

Until now, the files have been used to track missing people, reunite families and validate restitution claims. The Tracing Service is an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The decision to release the copies circumvents the requirement to withhold them until all 11 countries ratify 2006 treaty amendments that enabled the unsealing of the archive. It was likely to speed up the distribution of the documents by several months.

Institutions that receive the documents can organize the electronic files and integrate them into their own archival systems, but they are prohibited from allowing access to researchers until the ratification process is complete, said archive director Reto Meister.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, which sent a representative to the meeting, welcomed the decision. “I am delighted to see this project moving forward,” said the memorial’s director, Avner Shalev.

“This was a huge hurdle for many people” on the commission, said J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues. He said the U.S. government would work to ensure the final four countries ratify the accord quickly.

Those countries – Italy, Greece, Luxembourg and France – have all pledged to endorse the agreement by the fall, Meister said. The U.S., Israel, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and Germany have finished the legal process.

Meister said the first 10 million pages – about one-fifth of the documents – will be ready for transfer to the countries by early September, with another huge batch following in November.