Closed archive leads to Holocaust denial claim
The documents are one of the world's largest collections of Nazi-era papers, and include files on more than 17 million people. The archive is kept at Bad Arolsen in Germany by the International Tracing Service (ITS), a branch of the international committee of the Red Cross established to help families find out what happened to their relatives.
The German government and ITS insist the personal files cannot be released immediately because of international agreements and German privacy law. But they are under pressure from the US government and Holocaust scholars to make them available.
Last year 20 countries, including Britain, published a joint statement backing the US position and calling for the "urgent" release of Bad Arolsen documents to researchers. One senior American researcher has called the refusal to open the archive "a form of Holocaust denial".
The sensitive nature of the material is not in dispute. The archives contain details of horrific medical experiments and files on alleged collaborators among concentration camp inmates. It also includes documentation on the lebensborn (lifespring) programme, under which tens of thousands of infants born to women in Nazi-occupied countries and fathered by German soldiers were sent to special educational facilities, where they were raised in the dogma of the "master race". Some lebensborn children may be unaware of their past.
The German government says it is committed to opening the archives, but not before privacy controls have been put in place. This is complicated because the privacy laws of many countries must be reconciled, a German foreign ministry spokesperson said. "Before opening the archives to researchers indiscriminately, questions of privacy and liability for the misuse of this sensitive data needs to be addressed."
The ITS has also come under fire for withholding access to the documents, and scholars claim the service's director for the past 20 years, Charles Biedermann, treats the collection as private records rather than as the product of vast state bureaucracies. Mr Biedermann did not return calls asking for comment.
The ITS website carries a statement saying the organisation "knows of the endeavours to ... make the stock of personal documents accessible to historical research".
The ITS is digitally scanning the papers "to comply with these justified interests". There is a reported backlog of several years in dealing with tracing requests, and the digitising of the records still has years to go.
"They have been stalling for eight years," said Johannes Houwink ten Cate, professor of history and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam and one of the leaders of the campaign to open the archives.
US officials were also unavailable for comment yesterday, a federal holiday, but Edward O'Donnell, the special envoy for Holocaust issues at the state department, told the New York Times: "Our objective is to open the archive, and we will continue to push."
Senior officials at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which wants to acquire copies of the files, have been scathing about the German handling of the issue. "This is a scandal and a big scar on the image of Germany," Sara Bloomfield, the museum director, said.
Paul Shapiro, the director of advanced Holocaust studies, declared: "Hiding this record is a form of Holocaust denial."
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