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Representatives of 11 countries who oversee the largest World War II archive are expected to decide today whether to open it for the first time to Holocaust scholars and other historians.

The archive, in Bad Arolsen, Germany, was established by the allied forces in 1955 to hold documents captured at archives throughout Germany. After the Iron Curtain fell, documents captured by Red Army forces were added. The archive is managed by the International Tracing Service, which answers to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The archive contains some 50 million pages on microfilm, as well as original documents recording the movements and fate of some 17 million prisoners at concentration and labor camps, along with those forced to work in factories and farms during the war.

A large portion of the material, copies of some 20 million documents, was moved in the late 1950s to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, but the rest has remained inaccessible to scholars and the general public.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble has informed the president of the Claims Conference, Dr. Yisrael Singer, that Germany favors opening up the archive immediately.

"The federal government agrees with the view that researchers interested in the archived documents be granted access to documents as soon as possible, among other reasons to enable Holocaust research," Schauble wrote in a letter to Singer.

The archive includes a list of 300 prisoners from the Mauthausen concentration camp who were executed on April 20, 1942, in honor of Adolf Hitler's 53rd birthday. A list from January 14, 1945, concerning prisoners in Bloc 8 at Gross-Rosen concentration camp, notes that a routine examination found 37 lice on 13 prisoners.

Udo Just, an archivist with the International Tracing Service, says the archived documents prove that, "there was not one German firm during World War II, of any size, that did not benefit from forced labor."

Prof. Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem believes that opening the archive will yield information about hundreds of concentration and labor camps about which nothing is currently known beyond their existence (see box).

Bauer said that scholars could learn what had happened to the prisoners, and glean information about war criminals, including the camp commanders and their staff.

The archive's regulations stipulate that information about a particular person may be given only to relatives. Changing this policy requires a unanimous decision by the 11 supervising countries. Most members, including Israel and the United States, have for several years favored changing the regulations, but other countries, including Germany, had objected on the grounds that opening the archive would violate the privacy of the people documented in it.

Three weeks ago, Yad Vashem announced that it supports opening the archive.