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Vast Nazi archive opens to the public

A vast archive of German war records opened its doors to the public on Wednesday, giving historians and Holocaust survivors, who have waited more than 60 years, access to concentration-camp records detailing Nazi horrors.

The 11 countries that oversee the archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS) have finished ratifying an accord unsealing about 50-million pages kept in the German town of Bad Arolsen, ITS director Reto Meister said on Wednesday.

”The ratification process is complete,” said Meister, whose organisation is part of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

”We are there. The doors are open,” he said, speaking by telephone while visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial with a delegation of United States congressional staff members.

Greece was the last of the 11 to formally file its ratification papers with the German Foreign Ministry. Poland, which holds the rotating chair of the international commission governing the archive, now must inform the ICRC that the ratification is complete, the final step in the process.

”It’s a relief. It took a long time — far too long,” said Paul Shapiro of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has lobbied since 2001 to pry open the ITS archive.

”I am pleased that the archive of the ITS can now be opened for research,” said Guenter Gloser, a German Deputy Foreign Minister responsible for Europe. ”I would like to invite all researchers to make use of this, and work through this dark chapter of German history.”

Until now, the archive had been used exclusively to trace missing persons, reunite families and provide documentation to victims of Nazi persecution to support compensation claims. The US government has also referred to the ITS for background checks on immigrants it suspected of lying about their past.

Meister said the ITS received 50 applications this month alone from academics and research organisations seeking to begin examining the archive — including untapped documents of communications among Nazi officials, camp registrations, transportation lists, slave-labour files, death lists and post-war displaced persons files.

The records are unlikely to change the general knowledge of the Holocaust and the Nazi era, probably the most intensely researched 12-year period of the 20th century.

But its depth of detail and original documentation will add texture and detail to history’s worst genocide, and is likely to fuel a revival of academic interest in the Holocaust.

It also will help satisfy a hunger among Holocaust survivors and victims’ families to know more about their own backgrounds and the fate of loved ones. The archive’s index refers to 17,5-million people in its 25 linear kilometres of files.

Allied forces began collecting the documents even before the end of the war, and eventually entrusted them to the Red Cross. The archive has been governed since 1955 by a commission that normally met once a year.

The commission members are the United States, Britain, Germany, Israel, Poland, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. — Sapa-AP

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