D.C., Jerusalem Museums Given Huge Nazi Archive

By Desmond Butler
Associated Press
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The keepers of a Nazi archive have delivered copies of Gestapo papers and concentration camp records to museums in Washington and Jerusalem, providing Holocaust survivors a paper trail of their own persecution.

Six computer hard drives bearing electronic images of 20 million pages arrived late Monday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here and the Yad Vashem Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.

Last week, the director of the International Tracing Service, custodian of the unique collection that has been locked away in Germany for a half century, released the files for transfer to the two museums.

But it will be months before the archive can be used to search family histories. Even after it opens to the public, navigating the vast files for specific names will be nearly impossible without a trained guide.

"Over the years, Yad Vashem has amassed a great deal of experience and knowledge in digitizing archival information and making it user-friendly," Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, said in a statement yesterday. "However, the material received last night is complex and vast, taken from a number of camps, which is organized in complicated and varying ways. We expect it will take a lot of resources to sift through the material and catalogue it."

The hard drives contain the first installment of digital copies from one of the world's largest Nazi archives, with the final documents scheduled to be copied and delivered by early 2009.

"This first transfer is the beginning of a major undertaking," said Holocaust Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield in a statement yesterday. "Our goal is to help survivors."

The museums now face a complex task of organizing the material on the hard drives. The archive is so vast, it will take days to transfer to museum computers, according to Paul Shapiro, director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

The museum has been training researchers to work with the documents. An index of about 17.5 million names on file with ITS is the key to finding documents and will arrive this year. The index has been scanned from about 50 million cards in varying formats, organizational systems and even scripts.

Most documents in the archive are written by hand, sometimes in old German script. They also contain variations in the spelling of names, many of which are recorded phonetically. That makes it impossible, for now, to convert large numbers of files to a digitally searchable form.

"You can't Google them," Shapiro says. "The question is how do we get people what they want?"

One tool the museum is preparing is a search engine it plans to make accessible soon on the Internet. It will allow people to search through a separate, limited index of the archive and get a sense of what kind of documents exist. That index describes sections of the documents, where they came from and where they are stored. It could provide clues about whether the information users are seeking might be there.

Though the museums' researchers can begin working with the material immediately, the public must wait for legal formalities to conclude, which could take several more months.

Unlocking the archive required 11 countries to amend their international treaty. France, Italy and Greece have yet to complete the process. The others are the United States, Israel, Britain, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Luxembourg and Germany.

Historians believe the files will add texture to the narrative of misery in the camps, where millions of people were worked to death or exterminated with industrial efficiency. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, one of every three Jews on Earth.

The Associated Press has been given repeated access to the archive in Bad Arolsen in recent months. Random searches through its files revealed a wealth of mundane yet telling detail on life and death in the camps.

Associated Press writers Arthur Max in Amsterdam and Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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