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Testimony of J. Christian Kennedy
Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues
before the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Subcommittee on Europe
March 28, 2007

Opening up of the Bad Arolsen Holocaust Archives in Germany

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Members of the Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to start my remarks by thanking the Committee for holding this important hearing. Congress's interest in the International Tracing Service (ITS) has greatly contributed to our progress to date in opening the ITS archive for research purposes. It has also helped to give the ITS the international media and political attention that it needs and deserves.

Since its establishment as an international entity in 1955, the ITS has operated under two agreements, known collectively as the Bonn Accords. The first agreement is among the United States and ten other countries which together comprise the ITS Commission, and the second is between the Commission and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which manages ITS operations. In addition to the United States, the Commission is comprised of Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom.

Located at Bad Arolsen, Germany, the ITS has a huge and unique collection totaling approximately thirty million pages of concentration camp, labor camp and displaced persons camp records covering the pre-war, World War II and post-war periods. Over seventeen million names appear in these archives. The ITS was set up in 1943 to aid in family reunification. Starting in the 1950s, survivors and their heirs have relied on documents in the ITS archives to substantiate benefit claims. Since 2001, the emphasis has been on documentation to support compensation claims for slave and forced labor as provided in the agreement that created the German foundation, "Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future." Those tasks are now essentially complete.

For at least the past decade, survivors and descendants of victims have sought access to the ITS archive to gain a measure of closure for their own personal tragedies. Holocaust researchers have also been eager to access the information to illuminate further the nature and workings of the Nazi regime and its genocide machine and to maximize the value of information in the archives by linking it with recollections of survivors while they are still living.

The United States strongly supported all of these objectives, and spearheaded the effort to open the ITS archive as soon as possible to survivors, descendants and researchers. The United States took the position that no changes to the Bonn Accords were necessary in order to open the archives, and urged the International Commission to direct that this be done. A growing number of Commission member states joined the United States in wishing to open the archives for research, and the Commission itself adopted this as an objective almost ten years ago.

Other members, however, and the former ITS Director, did not share our sense of urgency. They believed that the Bonn Accords did not permit opening the archives and that they could be opened only if the Bonn Accords were formally amended - a process requiring the affirmative agreement of all eleven countries.

Many governments also asserted that privacy concerns made it unwise and possibly illegal to permit access by researchers. In addition, they opposed making a digital copy of the records available in the United States because in their view U.S. laws did not provide the same measure of protection for sensitive personal information as do European laws. And so efforts to amend the Accords were blocked.

After several years of failed attempts, serious discussions on workable amendments began in 2004, following strongly worded resolutions by the 24-nation International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research calling for immediate resolution of the access issue. With approximately ten percent of the Holocaust survivor population passing away each year, it was becoming inconceivable and morally wrong to deny them and scholars access to the archives.

You may ask, what finally changed to permit new circumstances for negotiations to move forward? There is no one answer, but certainly coordinated efforts by the State Department, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, survivors, and Members of Congress played a key role in forcing this issue to a conclusion. International media attention was also an important factor.

With the groundwork carefully prepared both in Washington and Berlin, German Justice Minister Zypries agreed to visit the Holocaust Museum during an April 2006 visit to Washington. After her tour, she made a clear and fundamental statement pledging her government's support for opening up the archives expeditiously, thus generating impetus for other ITS Commission members to follow suit.

Just a month later at its May 2006 meeting in Luxembourg, the International Commission reached agreement on and adopted amendments to the Bonn Accords to permit each Commission member to receive a digitized copy of the entire Bad Arolsen archive. Commission member states would be able to make those copies available, under their respective national privacy laws, to researchers and to survivors and their families. The amendments would also provide for researchers to have direct access to the archives in Bad Arolsen, which will continue to remain open. The access rules for visiting the premises remain under discussion and should be finalized soon. (Americans wishing to make inquires to Bad Arolsen may do so by writing to The American Red Cross, Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center located at 4800 Mt. Hope Drive, Baltimore, Maryland 21215, by emailing at hwvtc@arc-cmc.org , or by phoning at (410) 624-2090).

All eleven member countries have now signed the amendments. The next step is confirmation by each country that it has completed its own internal procedures to bring the agreement into force. So far, the United States, Poland, Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have so notified Germany, the depositary. Germany has assured us that it will complete its process by the end of April. The remaining countries are being called upon to do so by September. This is important because under the formula agreed to last May, the amendments will only come into force when all eleven have formally approved.

The State Department and the Holocaust Museum are working diligently to encourage all countries to accelerate the approval process, with the high-level political attention this issue deserves. Our efforts include close consultations with local Embassy officials in Washington and with senior officials in ITS Commission member capitals. We are working closely with Berlin on ensuring the timely conclusion of this process, including coordinated demarches by the United States and Germany to all other ITS member countries to urge expeditious approval of the amendments and authorization of a technical copy of the electronic data, an issue that I shall return to in a moment. The Dutch Government, as Chair of the ITS Commission until May, is also working to hasten the process. They called a meeting in The Hague earlier this month to take stock on the approval process and to discuss a number of other important issues such as the technical transfer of the data, which is no small feat for a collection of over thirty million documents. The March meeting has paved the way for a number of recommendations to be finalized at the May plenary meeting. I would also like to draw attention to our close working relationship with the new ITS Director, Reto Meister, who is committed to an open and transparent ITS.

Besides formal approval of the amendments, another priority is working towards the technical transfer of the data. If I may, I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss the structure of the ITS so you can have a better appreciation of the work before us.

Since the original purpose of the ITS was to aid in family reunification, the main operating tool through which the ITS staff accessed the documentation was the Central Name Index (CNI), which contains approximately 40 million cards. However, the bulk of the documents, 19,000 separate archival collections, have been organized into three archival groups:

  • (I) Documents on Incarceration (concentration camps and prisons)
  • (II) War time Documents (on forced labor)
  • (III) Post War Documents (displaced persons, DP camp records and emigration records)

Group I contains approximately 10 million documents. This group will be ready to be copied and transferred to member states in June, as will the Central Name Index. However, the digitization and archiving of the other two groups are not yet completed. Group II, containing four to five million documents, is approximately 60 percent scanned. Group III, with approximately 14 million pages, is about 30 percent scanned.

While Germany is legally bound to fund the ITS, to increase considerably the pace of digitization would require an infusion of 2.5 million euros (3.2 million USD). At our March meeting in The Hague, Germany promised to commit an additional 1.5 million euros starting in 2008 towards this cause. The ITS Director, however, anticipates there will be a financial shortfall of approximately 250,000 euros in 2007. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is actively raising private donations to address both this shortfall and costs associated with accelerating the digitization process. Some ITS Commission member states have also indicated a willingness to contribute.

Getting back to the collection of incarceration records (group I) and the Central Name Index, the United States is working with Germany and the Dutch Chair to gain agreement by all ITS Members to allow a technical transfer of the data to repository institutions - in the case of the United States, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum - in June. This is an urgent step, as the Holocaust Museum has informed us that several months will be needed to do the technical work needed to prepare the information for access. During this time, the data at the museum will be closed to the public pending approval of the amendments by all Commission members. Once the amendments enter into force and the technical work is completed, the documents will be accessible. We expect this to happen no later than the end of the year.

If, however, the amendments are not yet in force at that time, we have made clear to other ITS Commission members that the United States believes some kind of provisional application will have to be considered. Our strong preference and the focus of our efforts, however, are to work with all countries to achieve the approval of the Bonn Accords amendments this year.

With the annual meeting of the ITS Commission just seven weeks away, we have our work cut out for us. I expect that at that meeting, we will reach agreement on a number of the technical issues. We will also have a better sense at that point where the approval process stands in each country. I look forward to keeping in touch with you and your staff on our progress.

Thank you again for your interest in this issue. Together, I believe we have certainly impressed upon the other ITS Commission members the importance and urgency of moving quickly, so that repository institutions will be able to provide more rapid access to the information that scholars, survivors and their descendants want in the near future.

I'd like to end with one poignant anecdote. Some of you may recall the 60 Minutes program on the ITS that aired in December 2006. Holocaust survivor Miki Schwartz was brought to Bad Arolsen along with two other gentlemen, the first survivors ever to be allowed access to the ITS.

In reviewing documents related to him, Mr. Schwartz learned for the first time that his name was on a deportation list from Buchenwald to another camp called Dora, an armaments factory responsible for the rockets that rained down on London. Dora was known to be a place where hardly anybody got out alive. Mr. Schwartz was stunned to see his name and one other prisoner's scratched off the list. Another document in the Buchenwald records offered an explanation by indicating he was put in an infirmary that day to recover from an illness. Until seeing these documents, he neither had any idea that he was to be transported, nor that he was spared.

You see, he was a young man and the Nazis likely made a shrewd calculation to provide him medical attention, so that upon recovery he could provide them needed service in a slave labor camp - doing bomb-making work that required small and agile hands. This is the kind of unrecorded example that highlights the importance of opening up the archives to scholars studying the detailed Nazi machinery while they still have the opportunity to corroborate their findings with first hand testimonies of survivors. Otherwise, stories like Mr. Schwartz' and so many others would be lost.

I'd be happy to answer questions you may have.

Thank you.



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