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Bad Arolsen Inside Story

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USHMM's Shapiro At Odds with Red Cross Bid for Bad Arolsen Openness

August 29th 2007

Central Name File
Bad Arolsen files

During the week of August 20, Red Cross officials transferred to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum some 13.5 million embargoed files from its massive Nazi-era archive at Bad Arolsen known as the International Tracing Service. The hard drives were hand-delivered by ITS director Reto Meister. For the Red Cross, it was a significant moment that it had labored hard to achieve.

The highlight of the initial ITS handover was a special Museum briefing held August 23 for several dozen Holocaust survivors, Second Generation members, and Jewish organizational leaders. The meeting was a chance to connect with the Holocaust community face to face. Survivors flew in from around the nation to attend. By all accounts the exchange was successful and a tribute to the efforts undertaken by both the Museum and the Red Cross to accelerate the controversial transfer.

During the presentation, ITS director Reto Meister deftly explained the technical complexities in transferring the huge collection and what could be expected in the future, according to several in the audience. Meister’s presentation and response to questions, in spite of a few pesky challenges, was honest and convincing as he promised continued dedication to the process, according to multiple reports from audience members.

Ironically, the special Museum briefing was nowhere covered in the media, not even the Jewish media which normally covers such events. Why?

Although the Red Cross was more than open for media coverage of the event, Paul Shapiro, the Museum’s point man for the Bad Arolsen coverage refused to allow it. Red Cross Officials declined to comment on Shapiro's insistence on media exclusion to an event held on public property with numerous members of the public involving an internationally significant process subject to a historic treaty. But the Red Cross, determined to follow its desired path of media openness, took pains to organize its own meetings with reporters outside the Museum’s setting and free from Museum interference.

Press releases detailing the transfer were issued by the Red Cross. Meister met with this reporter in the Red Cross’s Washington office. His flash trip to the Baltimore office of the Red Cross included a visit with a local Jewish media reporter. A hastily cobbled session for Jewish leadership and media at the Manhattan headquarters of the American Jewish Congress was scheduled but then cancelled at the last minute because not enough people could attend on such short notice--but the effort by both Meister's people and the American Jewish Congress was hour-to-hour. Undaunted, Meister and his Red Cross colleagues, traveled to New York to meet with Jewish communal leaders at the American Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Exhausted from their city to city treks to visit Jewish communal groups and media sources, Meister went so far as to use remaining Friday minutes to meet a Jewish media reporter in a New York Starbucks to explain the ins and outs of the pending transfer.

The energetic efforts of the ITS and Red Cross stood in stark contrast to the Museum’s policy blocking media involvement in the community briefings held on its own premises, and were at odds with the Museum’s past public portrayals of the Red Cross as an uncooperative and unresponsive villian.

Indeed, Shapiro went so far, sources say, as to telephone another group and angrily pressure them to cancel a media activity. That group ignored Shapiro's protest.

For his part, Shapiro refused to return a call from this reporter asking him to explain his decision to veto all media coverage at the Museum's August 23 community briefing, or his efforts to pressure organizers of other events. Nor would Museum spokesmen Andy Hollinger and Arthur Berger, or director Sara Bloomfield return calls on the subject.

However, observers suggest that Shapiro, who valiantly led the crusade to open up the Bad Arolsen archive, may have tried to thwart media coverage because he did not want to field questions about exactly who engineered the unusually restrictive language in the International Tracing Commission treaty that limited the record transfer to a single repository. Who was it? Nor would he want to explain how the Museum became the designated repository over the National Archives since about three-fourth of the files relate to non-Jewish victims of the Reich, observers suggest. How did that happen? Further, they suggest, Shapiro would not want to explain why the French proposal later also posited by the Red Cross for an Internet-accessible “virtual private network” or VPN were not implemented. Instead, as many as eleven separate multi-million dollar computer infrastructures will have to be built from scratch, one for each of the 11 nations entitled to receive a copy. That will take years and plenty of lucrative fundraising.

The fast and relatively inexpensive French idea and Red Cross posited option for a “virtual private network” would have “reinterpreted the treaty” by treaty member consensus to create a single virtual copy of Bad Arolsen’s 40-50 million images accessible over the Internet by any number of authorized computers spread across the eleven nations that control the files. Such a diverse network of inexpensive terminals scattered across America would be imperative if the Bad Arolsen records are to be successfully searched by elderly Holocaust victims, dying daily.

As a reality check, although the Bad Arolsen records are being made Internet ready by exporting them to the XML language ideally suited to the worldwide web, and although searches by a trained user can often locate an individual’s files within moments, that does not mean that average people can always just punch in their name or a key word and see instant results. Often, a trained user will need to tenaciously surf the Bad Arolsen databases in a trial and error question to isolate the correct name files.

Seattle survivor Fred Taucher, a network computer expert who just returned from a Bad Arolsen tour, spent a forty minute session in the Red Cross archive with an ITS expert to locate his own family files. It was a tedious process as he plumbed his own seared boyhood memories for names, dates, and locations. Taucher became convinced that for most aging Nazi victims, a side-by-side memory-extracting handholding session between a survivor and a skilled database user evoking trial and error spellings, recollections and verbalized linguistic permutations would be necessary. That means the obvious: the survivor needs to be in the room to help the researcher.

Being "in the room" returns survivors to their original publicly expressed public outrage against Museum plans--and Shapiro in particular--to sequester the Bad Arolsen files to its own property and become the long-distance middleman researcher. This would force survivors to travel to Washington or engage in a protracted "guess and guess again" fax and letter inquiry procedure.

But most survivors are too frail or lack the financial resources to travel to the Museum in Washington to search the voluminous files. Moreover, the priority line would be impossibly frustrating and long at the Museum. Who gets priority? Records relating to 17 million individuals are in the collection. Any one survivor would have to compete with every other survivor, as well as second generation members, journalists, researchers, lawyers, corporate defenders, Holocaust deniers, grad students, grade school teachers, and war buffs to have access to the Museum computers. In other words, the 425,000 query backlog that existed last year might well be transferred to Washington DC.

Sending in a fax form requesting information is just an invitation to failure after failure because the first guess at childhood names (such as diminutive teenage Sasha and its more formal adult Alexander), or changing place names such as Danzig and Gdansk, or variants as such as Abram, Avram or Abraham, may not be the best guess. Taucher himself originally thought he was sent as a boy to Dachau and only after a recent trip to Germany realized it was Sachsenhausen. A back and forth process taking months and years could be expected for more than a few.

Rather, survivors want to carefully examine the records with a helper in libraries, and local centers where they live in New York, Florida, California and elsewhere around the country. Numerous Holocaust, Jewish and academic institutions have an expressed their willingness to host an ITS terminal for their local communities and assist.

The Museum and Shapiro will undoubtedly bristle as usual when criticized by survivors, second generation or the press. If the Museum holds true to form when its failings have been spotlighted, it will immediately go on a broad media offensive, inviting hand-picked journalists to a cascade of briefings and posting plenty of graphic materials on its website. But as of press time in late August, embattled Museum officials are still at odds with many in the Holocaust community, still hunkered down and unwilling to answer key questions from the media about its secretive Bad Arolsen transfer process, and still struggling to confront the historical imperative of what many survivors are saying: “let my records go.”
Edwin Black, author of IBM and the Holocaust, has written numerous investigative articles on the Bad Arolsen collections and recently won an Integrity Award from survivors for his Bad Arolsen coverage. His series can be seen at http://www.ibmandtheholocaust.com/BadArolsenArticles.php.

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