Shoah Survivors Slam Museum’s Archive Plan

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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The transfer of millions of Holocaust-era documents to the United States Holocaust Memorial Mueum was supposed to be a great victory for justice, but it is instead becoming a cause for protest from survivors.

The Holocaust museum was one of the main instigators for the release of documents from the Bad Arolsen archives in Germany, which contain millions of records about every detail of the Nazi regime’s atrocities. Last week, with the museum’s prodding, the United States and 10 other nations agreed to make the Bad Arolsen documents publicly available to researchers and survivors.

But while the Washington museum has made the documents a cause celebre, it has quickly become the target of Holocaust survivor groups in America who are staging a protest over the way in which the institution is planning to make the documents available. In angry editorials and letters to Congress members, survivors have argued that the Holocaust museum is wronging them by not making the documents immediately available on the Internet.

“The whole thing doesn’t make sense,” said Leo Rechter, editor of a widely distributed survivors newsletter. “I don’t know what the museum is looking for — more glory or more funds.”

The Holocaust museum has been put in the awkward position of defending itself against the very Nazi victims it has attempted to memorialize. The museum’s point man on the documents, Paul Shapiro, was quick to acknowledge the deep historical roots of the survivors’ dissatisfaction.

“In effect, they’ve been waiting 60 years for something to happen,” Shapiro, the director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, told the Forward. “Of course, after 60 years I’d be impatient, too.”

Since the Bad Arolsen archives became a repository for the millions of Nazi documents found by the Allies, the files have been available only to survivors who make personalized requests. The archives have been run by the International Tracing Service, a branch of the International Red Cross. The new agreement throws open the archives for public searches by historians and survivors, though the agreement comes with numerous restrictions.

The current debate about how the Washington museum will display the documents is somewhat theoretical, given that it will not receive the first trove of digital files until later this summer and has yet to finalize how all the information will be sorted and accessed. Thus far, the anger of the survivors has been based largely on statements made to the press rather than on any particular policy decision.

Shapiro and other museum staff have mounted a campaign in the past few days to correct what they see as misperceptions in the survivor community, including the belief that the documents could be made available in some form that could be easily searched on the Internet. The problem, Shapiro said, is that the documents to be shipped out are in multiple languages and that the staff in Germany never developed any efficient model for searching the records, because they were not meant to be publicly accessible.

“It’s simply incorrect to believe that the technical systems that exist function like Google or anything close to it,” Shapiro said.

Another hurdle in the release of the documents is the matter of privacy laws in the different countries that have allowed for the release of the archives. Shapiro said that in the United States, a government entity like the museum cannot release documents about living people, which makes it hard to put the entire trove on the Internet without careful culling. The director of the Bad Arolsen archives, Reto Meister, told the Forward that documents created in the past 25 years cannot be released at all; more than that, Meister said that the countries agreed not to “expose personal data for public curiosity.”

By the terms of the agreement signed last month, a single copy of the documents can be sent to a designated institution in each country. In Israel, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial will receive one copy. In Washington, Shapiro said the Holocaust museum will bring on new staff to answer inquiries from survivors anywhere in the world. Survivor groups, though, have said that the documents should be made available to anyone on the Internet and also to local Holocaust museums around the country.

“The idea of having a private database that can only be accessed at the museum boggles the mind,” Rechter said.

In the anger over the restrictions, Shapiro himself has become the target of much of the ire of survivors. In an article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which first documented the survivors’ anger, David Schaecter, a Miami survivor leader, said, “I don’t know how, in the name of God, Shapiro can look at himself in the mirror.”

This anger comes with some irony, because it is Shapiro who is given much of the credit for allowing the documents to be released at all. Meister said, “Shapiro has played a determining role in making this public.”

For the past 60 years, survivors have been able to make requests directly to the archives in Germany, but the responses came slowly and rarely included copies of the actual documents. At one point during Shapiro’s campaign, there was a backlog of 425,000 requests from survivors.

The documents will be made available to the public only after all 11 nations have ratified the agreement. While only seven have done so thus far, the countries agreed last week that the documents would be sent out to museums on the condition that they are not released to the public until the final four countries ratify the agreement.

Meister was wary of expressing any position on the disputes in America. He did say that in his own offices, his staff is already concerned about protecting the material from Holocaust revisionists.

Earlier in the day, Meister said, his staff received a phone call from a revisionist who wanted to know how many names were on the prisoner rolls at Auschwitz, presumably to refute historical claims about the number that died at the concentration camp. At the end of the day, though, Meister said that “the documents here are proof that a horrible Holocaust happened. These archives are the demonstration of it.”

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