America and seven other nations signed an agreement yesterday opening to the public a massive archive of information on victims of the Holocaust.
The deal resolves a diplomatic logjam in which several European countries cited privacy concerns to block access to the records, which have been maintained for decades by the International Tracing Service of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
”Holocaust survivors are dying,” the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, Edward O’Connell, told The New York Sun yesterday. ”Sixty-one years after the end of the Holocaust, it’s time to resolve this issue.”
The agreement will allow historical research on between 30 million and 50 million pages of documents relating to about 17 million people who were transported to Nazi-run concentration camps, forced into slave labor, or driven into displaced persons camps in Europe.
”It provides a very special view of the Holocaust and Nazi brutality, not so much top-down but what was the real experience of people caught in the viciousness,” the director of studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Paul Shapiro, said.
Under the agreement, each of the countries involved will select a site to receive a digital copy of the records. The American copy will be housed at the Holocaust Museum.
Until now, nearly all of the records were off limits to the public, although individuals could ask the Red Cross to search for records about themselves or their relatives.
Mr. Shapiro said there was a backlog of hundreds of thousands of requests. ”If you’re an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor and you ask for information and you get number 280,001 in line, what are the real chances you would get information that was useful for you?” he asked.
According to Mr. Shapiro, the effort to open the archive met with resistance not only from some European countries, but also from Red Cross officials who ran the existing archive, located about 100 miles east of Dusseldorf in the German town of Bad Arolsen.
The longtime director of the facility, Charles Biedermann, was ”very resistant to providing helpful information,” Mr. Shapiro said.
The Red Cross said in March that it was ”wholly in favor of opening the archives” but that it could not do so without permission from the 11-country commission that controls the materials.
Last month, the Red Cross replaced Mr. Biedermann. A note announcing the move was placed on the archive’s Web site. No reason was given for the director’s departure, and a Red Cross spokesman said the organization does not comment on personnel matters.
In April, Germany broke the privacy stalemate and agreed that each of the countries involved accept each other’s privacy rules as adequate. Mr. Shapiro said he hopes that large parts of the American copy of the archive, which will be essentially unrestricted, will be available for research by November.
The American ambassador to Germany, William Timken Jr., signed the accord during yesterday’s ceremony at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin. Some countries will need to ratify the pact as a treaty, but that is not required under American law. The three countries involved that did not sign yesterday, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Poland, are expected to do so later.