History Demands an Uncompromised Home for Shoah Archive

By Edwin Black

Published August 04, 2006, issue of August 04, 2006.
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The world’s largest Holocaust archive, the secretive International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, has finally agreed to open its files to researchers and journalists. The long-awaited access follows years of acrimonious contention between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which manages the repository.

The opening of the International Tracing Service carries staggering implications for Holocaust research. Such a thought has almost certainly occurred to those at the helm of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is scheduled within the coming year to be given a complete digitized copy of the archive.

It is not clear, however, that the Holocaust museum is the right institution to control the records. During recent months, the museum has mischaracterized the Red Cross’ role in the decision-making process, some critics say. They add that during the very process of opening the archive, the museum has “grandstanded” as a fund-raising ploy, and purveyed guesswork instead of informed insights about the archive’s massive contents. Moreover, the Holocaust museum enforces an unwritten taboo against discussing American corporate involvement in the Holocaust, a fact the archive’s files would document extensively.

Certainly, access to the miles of International Tracing Service files will dramatically expand the scope of Holocaust research. Because the tracing service had previously focused only on individual victims, it never assembled the larger picture of which companies or German organizations were involved in Hitler’s industrial scale oppression and genocide. That is now possible.

The soon-to-be-released records will be newly organized by camp, ghetto and, in many instances, according to the original Nazi organization involved. Among the many by-products of the tracing service’s revelations is vast additional proof of IBM’s minute-to-minute involvement in the 12-year Holocaust, new insights into the specific corporate beneficiaries of Germany’s slave and forced labor programs, and the dark details of how entities such as the Organization Todt construction group, the Inspector General’s Office, banks, insurance companies and many other groups combined to turn the wheels of Nazi oppression.

But the very potency and diversity of the archival material raises concern about the Holocaust museum’s ability to properly handle the information.

By way of background, the International Tracing Service was established by the victorious Allies to help families trace Holocaust and war victims. Millions of captured documents were forwarded by the Allies to the facility in Bad Arolsen. Because IBM designed and executed the Nazi people tracking systems used throughout Europe, the company was uniquely positioned to provide the tracing information on millions of victims. The company donated sets of Hollerith tabulators to the Red Cross and, as early as 1947, developed special punch cards to trace victims. The International Red Cross was given custody and control of the archives, which provided information on individuals but only to survivors and their families. However, a typical family request took years of frustrated efforts, causing protracted pain to those inquiring.

Unlocking the archive is a major achievement, but it required more than the consent of the Red Cross. The new access rules follows an accord negotiated among the 11 nations comprising the commission that owns the archive: the United States, France, England, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland and Israel, plus the two former Axis powers Italy and Germany.

At the forefront of the campaign to open the International Tracing Service files has been a passionate group of senior officials at the Holocaust Museum. These include the museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield; the senior advisor for external affairs, Arthur Berger; the director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Paul Shapiro; and State Department envoy Edward O’Donnell, an ex-officio member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

In a July 7, 2006, interview, Berger recalled his part in the frustrating struggle to open the archive: “We tried for years to work quietly behind the scenes — since 1991.” He added, “Paul Shapiro went with a group, and they refused to even let him tour the archive.”

A senior official at the museum, who requested to remain on background, specified with irritation that the 11-member governing commission “would meet once per year for one day, each year in a different city. They received a dog and pony show from the ITS director, had a good lunch, and went home. It was run like many a company board of directors.”

This past March, the Holocaust museum went public, issuing a press release openly attacking the International Committee of the Red Cross. Berger charged that, “the ITS and the ICRC have consistently refused to cooperate with the international commission board and have kept the archive closed.” Momentum and pressure resulted in a multinational agreement initialed on May 16 to finally open the archives, allowing a full copy to reside in each nation’s designated archive. Holocaust museum USHMM officials proudly took center stage, vowing that America’s copy would be in their possession within months.

The Red Cross, however, scoffed at the museum’s tactics, including Berger’s press release. Asked if the press release were accurate, one senior Red Cross official in Geneva quipped, “I wouldn’t believe everything you read.” Another just declared, “No comment.” One senior American archivist of Nazi documents called the museum’s statements and guesstimations about contents to be “mere grandstanding for the benefit of those who worship the Holocaust museum.”

Indeed, although the Holocaust museum is said to pride itself on the precision of its statements, guesswork by museum officials has been the source of much of the inaccurate and unverified reporting in the media about International Tracing Service holdings.

For example, after a July 17, 2006 briefing to congressional staffers, Shapiro stated that the archive held “30-50 million pages of records” divided into three collections: prisoner records, forced and slave labor, and displaced persons. More exact details were not known, he claimed, because the tracing service refused to reveal any information. Shapiro ambiguously stated he based on his remarks on “various statements by various people.” He added it would be many months before the organization of the archive could be determined.

Shapiro’s information has been since shown to be mere guesswork. According to internal archival documents, the International Tracing Service holds approximately 33.6 million pages, divided into four record groups. As of the end of July, slightly more than 57% of the pages had been digitized. The contents open whole new vistas for researchers looking beyond individual suffering to construct the big picture.

Section 1, titled “Incarceration Records,” holds records and information about concentration camps and other forms of imprisonment. Dated 1933-1945, it totals about 4,425,000 pages, or 12.5% of the holdings. Section 2 titled “Forced Labor” and dated 1939-1947, includes corporate involvement in slave labor. This material totals approximately 4,455,000 pages, or 13.5%.

The largest collection is Section, titled “Post-War Records” and featuring about 24,750,000 pages, or 71% of the holdings. This section includes precious postwar displaced-persons camp interviews conducted by British, French and American forces. Section 4, titled Child Tracing Bureau, provides 9,900 pages information about tracking the fate of children.

Section 1.6 organizes prisoner cards by numbers instead of names, according to internal International Tracing Service documents. These prisoner numbers were, by and large, assigned according to the Hollerith punch card system designed and maintained by IBM engineers.

Section 1 also assembles records from 49 camps and ghettos, with each assigned a sequential number, generally in alphabetical order. The Amersfoort police torture camp in Holland leads the list, numbered 1.1.1; the trio of Auschwitz camps in Poland is 1.1.2, but records hail mainly from the transport camp, with very little from the Birkenau death camp, and almost nothing from the Monowitz labor camp, according to source material. The Warsaw Ghetto is listed as 1.1.44.

Section 1.2.1 includes prisoner transport lists which were organized by IBM Hollerith and generally referred to in Nazi documents as “Hollerith transfer lists.” Subgroup 1.2.3 contains Gestapo registrations, according to internal files.

Section 2 includes the names of companies that benefited from slave labor. These records are grouped mainly by the Allied zone of occupation that captured the files. For example, the American zone is contained in Section 2.1.1, while the British zone is Section 2.1.2. Nazi employment bureau records, such as the Employment Exchange in Warsaw, are contained in Section 2.3.3.

The contents of Section 2 alone call into question whether the Holocaust Museum is the right institution to take custody of the documents. The museum has long enforced an unwritten taboo on discussing the activities of American companies and philanthropies involved in the Holocaust. This long list of companies and philanthropies cooperating in the Hitler regime include such American icons as General Motors, Ford, Chase Manhattan Bank, the American Chamber of Commerce, Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Institution and IBM.

Given that corporate involvement is precisely the type of information that would be abundantly documented in International Tracing Service files, there is strong reason to doubt the Holocaust museum’s trustworthiness as steward of the archive’s files. Moreover, one Nazi archival expert who dealt directly with the archive, but declined to be named, openly criticized the Holocaust museum. “If the United States acquires a full set of the International Tracing Service files,” he asserted, “it should be deposited in the National Archives, not the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, because some 75% of the victims covered by those files were not Jewish.” In short, he argues, the archive’s collection vastly exceeds the Holocaust museum’s mandate to commemorate the Holocaust.

The long-awaited opening of the world’s largest Holocaust archive is as full of promise as it is overdue. If the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum cannot fulfill the mandate demanded by the International Tracing Service files, then it must allow a less compromised institution to take control of the records — one that will not cover its eyes, ears and mouth when it stumbles across corporate revelations just waiting to be discovered.

Edwin Black is author of the bestselling “IBM and the Holocaust” (Crown, 2001) and the forthcoming “Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives” (St. Martin’s Press).

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