Israel's Holocaust Memorial Seeking More Light on Dark Era

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel's main Holocaust memorial hopes the transfer of millions of documents from a German archives will give a more detailed picture of what happened during the World War II Nazi Holocaust, an official said.

Earlier this week, the International Tracing Service organization transferred digitized copies of some 12 million Holocaust-related documents to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust authority in Jerusalem, and to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The scanned documents, long kept out of the public domain, primarily include material describing prisoners in dozens of concentration camps -- the personal records of various prisoners, transfer records, personal prisoner accounts, and details on the sick and the dead.

In total, the ITS archives contains information on some 17.5 million individuals, ITS said.

The archives, located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, was set up to find people missing as a result of World War II. The ITS is governed by an 11-nation international commission, including the U.S. and Israel. It is managed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

"These documents reflect the most despicable operations of the Nazi era and constitute an essential part of our archive," said ITS director Reto Meister during the handover at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

For years, information from the archives was made available only to the victims of Nazi persecution and their families, not to researchers or the public at large. The process of obtaining answers about loved ones was often long and arduous.

But in 2006, largely at the urging of the U.S. and Israel, the ITS voted to change its founding charter to allow member states to receive copies of the documents and to open the archives to the public. The decision must be ratified all member states.

( Representatives of the five states that have not yet ratified -- Belgium, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg -- have said the process should be completed this autumn.)

"We're hoping that [the archives] will shed more light on the personal experience and events themselves," said Estee Yaari, spokeswoman for Yad Vashem.

"Any new information that allows us to get a better picture of what happened is a good thing," Yaari told Cybercast News Service.

Yad Vashem already has listed the names of 3.1 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Historians estimate that six million Jews, including entire communities, were wiped out as a result of the Nazi's systematic plot to exterminate all European Jews.

The newly released documents may help researchers add more names to the long list or they may give more information about entire communities that perished, said Yaari.

Jewish people aren't the only ones listed in the archives. As many as 72 million people died during World War II, many from war-related famine and disease.

According to Yaari, Yad Vashem faces a challenging task in sifting through the millions of documents. Not only is the material is written in German, it also must be organized and catalogued in a user-friendly way.

Researchers also must determine if all the documents are new, or if they also appear in the 20 million pages the archives released in the 1950s.

The newly released documents represent about one third of those in the Bad Arolsen archives.

The public will not get a look at them until the ITS treaty is ratified all its member states. Meanwhile, digital copies of more material from Bad Arolsen are expected to arrive at Yad Vashem towards the end of 2007, as well as in 2008 and 2009.

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