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Bad Arolsen Conflict

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USHMM Launches Promising if Daunting Individualized Bad Arolsen Search Program

January 17th 2008

Archive  International Tracing in Bad Arolsen
ITS files at Bad Arolsen

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum today launched an ambitious and daunting new program of “individualized research” to help Holocaust survivors obtain precious documentation about their Nazi enslavement.

This new program “begins right now,” said Arthur Berger, USHMM Director of External Communications, in a Museum corridor just moments after a closed-door briefing with survivors, details of which were provided first to The Cutting Edge News.

The “individualized research” will probe a triad of major archival collections. These include some 46 million documents derived from several countries in the existing USHMM collections, the first central names index and related documentation just transferred from the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, and finally, the bulk of 35 million Bad Arolsen files scheduled to be transferred between 2010 and 2011.

The important feature of individualized “give and take” with survivors will be a hallmark of the new program. About two dozen polyglot researchers have already been trained by the USHMM to undertake the sensitive searches. Each search is roughly guesstimated to take six to eight weeks, and will include providing the survivor with gratis physical copies of the discovered documents.

Berger and spokesman Andy Hollinger were confident and forthcoming about the new program of individualized research with the new corps of two dozen newly-trained researchers. But when asked USHMM point man on Bad Arolsen, Paul Shapiro, repeatedly refused to specifically confirm the language Berger and Hollinger used to describe the effort.

Experience shows that many of the Bad Arolsen searches can be accomplished in moments by staffers trained to use the ITS’s gargantuan databases. Last April, for example, a French film worker stood with this reporter before the ITS second floor computer in Bad Arolsen and watched his father’s name typed in. Moments later, the Frenchman was astonished to discover the details of his incarceration at Buchenwald.

However, many searches require tedious trial and error, as survivors excavate from their memories nicknames, real names, supposed locations of incarceration or transportation, and other information now decades in the past. An exemplary case was that of David Bayer who attended a USHMM press briefing to show how the system methodically traced his medical victimization. Numerous steps were required to filter through the various “David Bayers” in the system before revealing his awful details in an SS Infirmary where his neck was sliced open without the benefit of anesthetic. Another survivor, Seattle computer expert Fred Taucher, actually traveled to Bad Arolsen to search his history; it took 45 minutes of stubborn detective work to discover the shocking realty that he was not at Dachau as he thought but at another camp.

Discovering both the complexities and conveniences of the Bad Arolsen computer system only granulated the roiling controversy over access to the Bad Arolsen files. For some victims the task would be swift and for others a protracted probe. In other words, survivors would often need to be “in the room.” That injected a geographical imperative since most survivors live in New York, Florida, or Los Angeles and other locales far from the Museum’s Washington doors. About 50,000 survivors live in Brooklyn.

Many survivors argued passionately for terminal access at nearby facilities such as local Holocaust memorials, or Jewish centers and federations in their hometowns the way other government and historical databases are routinely accessed at universities and libraries everywhere. Sources at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, American Judaism University in Los Angeles, Detroit Holocaust Center, and other many institutions have expressed an interest in such terminal access.

The Bad Arolsen files have already been converted to the universal Internet-ready computer language, XML, hence, there is no technical bar to simple duplication of the files, or enabling terminals throughout the world to access the database regardless of where the server is located. There is no national or international legal bar to sharing the access remotely with institutions across the United States. Yad Vashem received many of the Bad Arolsen files decades ago in the absence of any cross-national legislation. Despite earlier USHMM explanations of a complex 2006 treaty, a State Department official with knowledge of the ITS declared, “There was no treaty.” Instead, a simple 2006 intergovernmental operating agreement created the protocols needed to transfer the files. Last Spring, French signatories to the simple international operating agreement and the ITS itself both suggested consideration of Internet availability instead of creating eleven rival massive data infrastructures, one for each of the countries that sit on the Bad Arolsen commission.

National Association of Child Holocaust Survivors president Leo Rechter wrote a December 2007 letter to The Cutting Edge News stating, “Only the survivor can provide clues or links that will lead to an accurate match. That assessment supports our case for a widespread dissemination of access-ports in libraries and museums all over the country. To depend on a single access-gate at the USHMM in Washington, D.C. is bound to create intolerable bottlenecks and sufferings. We hope that the USHMM directorate will keep this fact in mind.”

At a press conference, USHMM officials did not explain why routine remote terminal access would be not permitted, but instead stated, as spokesman Hollinger did, “We just want to focus on getting as much information to the survivors as possible.

USHMM’s new plan seems to partially address survivor concerns for remote access by injecting the crucial element of individualized “give and take.” Hence, if the USHMM promise is realized, any survivor would have the equivalent of his or her own private researcher sitting in Washington with access to Bad Arolsen files on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed to Bad Arolsen staffers in Germany.

It was not immediately clear how the promising and daunting new program would differ from the existing Bad Arolsen program of “individualized research.” Estimates indicate there are almost a million survivors throughout the world, with perhaps some 15 percent residing in the United States. Approximately a year ago, the ITS struggled through a decade-long backlog of 425,000 inquiries relating to 17 million Jewish and non-Jewish individuals listed in their collection. That backlog has been substantially cut. At the same time, the USHMM struggled to complete some 8,000 searches in a year.

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. More stories on the topic can be found at http://www.ibmandtheholocaust.com/BadArolsenArticles.php.


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