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International body moves to open Nazi archive by year’s end

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Moving more quickly than expected, the 11-nation body overseeing a long-secret archive of Nazi war records set procedures in motion Thursday to open millions of files on concentration camps and their victims before the end of the year.
    Member nations made the decision knowing that within a year 10 percent of all Holocaust survivors now living may be dead, one American archive director said.
    The governing commission of the International Tracing Service, the storehouse of an estimated 30 million to 50 million pages documenting the Holocaust, concluded a two-day meeting with a set of recommendations for copying and transferring files to Holocaust institutions for use by survivors, victims’ relatives and scholars.
    The recommendations must be adopted at a formal meeting of the 11 countries in May.
    Before the material can be accessed, however, all the member countries must ratify an agreement adopted last year to end the 60-year ban on using the files for research.
    ‘‘I am hopeful this will happen in 2007,’’ said J. Christian Kennedy, the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, who led the U.S. delegation.
    Israel, the United States, Poland and the Netherlands have completed ratification, and Germany, Britain and Luxembourg told the meeting they would ratify before the commission meets again in May.
    But national elections in France and Belgium could cause delays in those countries, officials said, and the status of ratification in Italy and Greece was unclear.
    The files, stored in Bad Arolsen, Germany, have been used since the 1950s to help locate missing persons or uncover the fate of people who disappeared during the Third Reich. Later, the files were also used to validate claims for compensation.
    Only personnel of the Tracing Service, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, had access to the files, which fill 16 miles of gray metal filing cabinets and cardboard binders in six nondescript buildings in the central German resort town.
    After this week’s meeting, the process of opening the files ‘‘is irreversible,’’ said Reto Meister, director of the Tracing Service, who briefed the commission on the archive’s preparations to share the files.
    In a key move, the 11 delegations agreed the Tracing Service should begin electronically transferring scanned files before the ratification process is complete, Meister told The Associated Press.
    Institutions on the receiving end, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial, will need several months to integrate the data and get them ready for public use.
    Much discussion focused on the timetable of ratification. At one point, when several countries moved back their estimated time frames, ‘‘I got up and reminded them that in one year 10 percent of survivors will die,’’ said Paul Shapiro, director of the Washington Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
    While much has been written about the Holocaust, scholars say the Bad Arolsen files will fill in gaps in history and provide a unique perspective gained from seeing original Nazi letters, the minutiae of the concentration camps’ structures, slave labor records and uncounted testimonies of victims and ordinary Germans who witnessed the brutality of the Gestapo.
    About 12 million people — half of them Jews — were systematically exterminated by the Nazis, and tens of millions more were incarcerated, displaced or forced to work for the German war machine. The Bad Arolsen archives index 17.5 million names that appear in its files, making them the world’s most complete record of individual suffering during the Holocaust.
    In the last 60 years, the Tracing Service has responded to 11 million requests from survivors and their families, but the overwhelming number of inquiries led to delays lasting years and resulted in only the sketchiest of replies. Once the files are available in Washington, Jerusalem and other locations, survivors will be able to search for information under the normal rules of each archive.
    Meister said the collection of documents on concentration camp incarcerations — some 13 million pages of death registers, transportation lists and camp registries — will be ready in June. The rest of the documents will be scanned and transferred within a year.
    Germany, which funds the Tracing Service, agreed to increase its allocation beginning next year to help offset the $3.2 million needed to speed up the digitization and transfer of files. The U.S. Holocaust Museum also will provide an unspecified amount, Kennedy said.

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