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The Bad Arolsen Conflict

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Survivors Rebuke USHMM’s Shapiro and ICRC over Bad Arolsen Discord Following Closed Door Meeting

March 3rd 2008

Paul Shapiro headshot
Paul Shapiro

Editor’s note: This summary and analysis of the Bad Arolsen archive transfer controversy was written by Leo Rechter, elected president of the National Organization of Child Holocaust Survivors, following the January 17, 2008 ICRC-USHMM joint briefing about the Bad Arolsen files. This was the second such controversial closed-door on federal Museum property and was marked by the exclusion of mainstream press.

On January 17th, the National Organization of Child Holocaust Survivors traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend a special, private briefing for survivors’ representatives at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum regarding the International Tracing Services archives held at Bad Arolsen and now transferring to the USHMM.

The Museum staff ran a slide-show, demonstrating how an index card, transferred recently from Bad Arolsen, had provided valuable information to one of the Museum’s Survivor volunteers. After months of work, the Museum has now accrued 50 to 70 million digital images from the Bad Arolsen ITS files. In addition to the index cards, the collection contains camp and ghetto records, Gestapo records, forced labor records, records from DP camps, and migration records. Although those documents refer to about 17.5 million people, Museum officials warn that they are not a complete list of the fate of millions of additional victims and survivors. Twenty on-site computer terminals (on the Museum premises) have been assigned to the tracing service and 25 staffers have been trained to do the searches. The trained staff will presumably not only search the transferred archive, but will also cross-reference it with the Museum’s own archives.

Applicants were told they may make requests for information on the web at: www.ushmm.org/its  or by calling (toll-free) 866-912-4385, or 202-488-6130. Answers should take about 6 to 8 weeks. Requests for ITS data can also be filed by filling out online forms available on the Museum’s website: www.ushmm.org. The completed forms can be submitted via mail or fax, or electronically. Survivors or their family members can also visit the Museum and have searches conducted on one of the twenty on-site computer terminals.

However, the ITS database is not capable of being searched by off-site computers, nor does there seem to be any plans to set up satellite computers around the country to perform the same service. Paul Shapiro of the USHMM stated that at the request of some European nations (he did not name them), each nation would only maintain a single repository. After the meeting, Mr. Shapiro told me that the UHSMM had fought very hard for multiple repositories in each nation, but had been overruled. He promised to send me evidence of this assertion, but must have forgotten because as of early March, I have not received any corroboration.

Another Museum spokesman submitted that: 1) the Museum staffers are especially trained to expand searches to include other archives thus providing the most comprehensive possible responses. 2) For now, the Museum will not share the materials with other Holocaust centers to avoid frustrating individuals searching for information. This last sentence is bewildering. To their statement I can only append three question marks”???”.

Another aspect to be considered, according to some of the Museum’s spokespersons, is that some of the eleven nations’ commission members of the tracing service still had privacy qualms if documents were freely available on the Internet. Again, the spokesperson declined to name the nations.

During the ‘Questions and Answers’ period, I directed questions at Reto Meister, the ICRC’s ITS administrator attending the briefing. Mr. Meister is an affable and cordial individual and I had hoped that – as an outsider to the discord of over the number of repositories – I would get straightforward answers. Regrettably, that was not the case. Mr. Meister simply blamed all results on ‘Committee decisions.”

My questions:
      1)  “Who suggested that there be only one recipient institution in each member nation?  It seems absurd that countries like Luxemburg and Belgium – with only a minor fraction of the world’s Holocaust Survivors’ population – should get a full set of data and the United States also only one set. Why was such an irrational formula accepted?  Who campaigned for this kind of exclusivity and monopoly?”
       2) “It has been asserted that the French delegates and Bad Arolsen technology officers have twice suggested that Internet access be made available directly from Bad Arolsen computers, instead of costly and complex data transfer. Why were these suggestions rejected? Who opposed them?”
       3) “When asked why the Amsterdam Conference, in mid-May 2007, chose not to place all the files on the Internet, a Red Cross Official – with direct access to the proceedings – allegedly answered:  “Don’t ask me. Technically it will be feasible to access these databases from anywhere in the world. We would just export the XML format. We could then support a virtually unlimited number of remote terminals. Member countries would not receive copies – just access. This option was not taken. Had they chosen the Internet option, the records would be accessible in a matter of months.” WHY was this option not accepted? WHO opposed it?”

From some of the answers we received it could be inferred that the Museum is more concerned with creating a legacy for historians and future researchers that with the heart-wrenching and pressing needs of Survivors for information about their murdered relatives, before they themselves are no longer of this earth.

My perception, as published previously in The Cutting Edge online newspaper of December 14th, 2007 is: “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." For those outside of Washington, D.C. it will create unjustifiable hardships.”

As Esther Finder, a group leaders of Second Generation individuals, rightfully pointed out: “How is filling out a form and waiting six weeks for an answer from the USHMM any different than filling out a form and waiting six weeks for a Bad Arolsen answer from Germany? The Red Cross is now saying they can do a search in six weeks. Where is the bargain offered by the Museum?

In its January 23rd issue, The Washington Jewish Week reached the same conclusion:  “Locally, most of those seeking information will be able to go to the museum and sit down with a researcher. Outside the Washington-area, that’s not possible. Twenty computers in Washington is not good enough when the vast majority of survivors and their families do not live in the Washington area. The Holocaust museum needs, as soon as possible, to set up satellite research locations in areas with high concentrations of survivors, such as New York and Miami.

The award-winning investigative reporter Edwin Black wrote in The Cutting Edge of January 17th: “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 decades in the past.” Black added, “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. Many survivors argued passionately for terminal access at nearby facilities such as local Holocaust memorials, 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 many other institutions have expressed interest in such terminal access.”

We sincerely wish and hope to be able to rely on the assertions and promises of the administrators of the venerable and treasured USHMM. But such hope is not easy! In comparison we read in a recent e-mail from the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem: “Yad Vashem is investing immense efforts to integrate the ITS materials into its computer systems in order to eventually make them available to the public in a user-friendly manner.

Leo Rechter is the elected president of the National Organization of Child Holocaust Survivors. His summary and analysis was adapted with permission from the just–released February edition of the newsletter of the National Organization of Child Holocaust Survivors.


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