Germany Lifts Objection to Opening World's Largest Archive on Nazi Victims

Scholars are expected to receive information about the fate of thousands of Nazi prisoners for the first time as German World War II archives are made public.

Scholars hope to find essential details on hundreds of slave-labor and concentration camps about which little is known - except for the fact that they existed, Professor Yehuda Bauer of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority told Haaretz. Bauer served as a consultant to Israel on the archive.

"There is a more than reasonable chance that the names of the camp commanders and their helpers will be found along with the names and fates of prisoners who passed through the camps," Bauer said.

For 60 years, the International Red Cross has used the archived documents to trace missing and dead Jews and others who were systematically persecuted by Nazi Germany and its confederates across central and eastern Europe before and during World War II. However, the archives have remained off-limits to historians and the public.

Eleven nations, including Israel and the United States, oversee the 30 million to 50 million documents housed in the German town Bad Arolsen. These nations will vote on whether to amend a 1955 treaty and give historians, family members and others access to the documents and information about the victims' fate.

The decision will be taken by consensus, and any one of the nations could block the opening. An agreement would still require the approval of parliaments in several countries.

Berlin will work with Washington on opening the files, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said at a news conference Tuesday at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, a major stride toward making the material public.

Until now Germany has resisted such moves, citing privacy concerns.

Even while using mass murder to try to eradicate European Jewry and others they considered inferior, the Nazis kept scrupulous records of their work. As a result, the records can illuminate the fate of victims, inform historians and possibly clear the way to lawsuits.

"We still have negotiations to do," the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, Edward B. O'Donnell, said in an interview. "Our goal is to reach an agreement as soon as possible."

The announcement by Zypries culminated a 20-year effort by the Holocaust Museum, the United States, France, Poland and other countries to pry open the archives.

In a meeting Tuesday with museum director Sarah Bloomfield, Zypries said Germany had changed its position and would immediately seek the revision of the accord governing the archives. The process should take no more than six months, the minister said.

"We are losing the survivors, and anti-Semitism is on the rise, so this move could not be more timely," Bloomfield said in an interview.

She said the move was "something of moral and historical importance in a critical time."

Germany's privacy law is one of the most restrictive among the 11 countries, said Paul Shapiro, director of the museum's center for advanced Holocaust studies. Remaining safeguards might limit duplicating a document or prevent using the name of someone cited without the person's permission, he said.