The American Red Cross has opened a center in Baltimore that will provide access to documents in Germany bearing the names of about 400,000 people who died or were interned in Nazi concentration and forced labor camps during World War II.
The Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center, in the local Red Cross office in northwest Baltimore, will serve as a national clearing house for Americans who want to learn the fates of friends and relatives who perished or were held in the camps.
Copies of the documents have been made available by the Soviet Union to a Red Cross agency in West Germany. The Soviet army recovered the original documents during the liberation of the camps at war's end.
People can apply immediately to the Baltimore center for information, said Linda Klein, media manager for the Central Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Emmy Mogilensky of Pikesville, who was present at the opening of the center yesterday, knows the value of the documents. From 1942 to 1946, Mogilensky, a German-Jewish teen-ager, searched for her parents from whom she was separated in the early days of World War II when she was shipped to England.
Her search ended in June 1946 when the Red Cross told her that her parents had died in a concentration camp.
With the documents made available by the Soviet Union, the search may end for thousands like Mogilensky.
Throughout the United States, applicants can complete inquiry forms at local Red Cross offices. The requests will be sent to the Baltimore center, where two staff workers and volunteers they supervise will translate the requests into German and forward them to the International Tracing Service, the Red Cross agency in Arolsen, West Germany, where the copies of the documents are being stored.
The documents include 46 Sterbebucher -- or "death books" - containing about 70,000 death certificates from the Auschwitz camp. The Soviets also have provided access to the names of about 130,000 people captured by the Germans for forced labor and about 200,000 internees of Sachsenhausen, Gross Rosen, Buchenwald and other concentration camps.
The Red Cross has cautioned that each search is expected to absorb considerable time. Certification of a death could take several months, while verifying a forced labor situation could take even longer.
Various spellings of similar-sounding names and inaccuracies in the original documents could further complicate the search process. However, each applicant will receive interim reports through the Baltimore office during a search, according to Klein.
Baltimore was chosen as the site of the center as the result of talks between local Red Cross executive director Patrick Morand and American Red Cross international services director Jose Aponte, Klein explained.
"When Mr. Morand learned that such a center would open in the United States, he asked about getting it for Baltimore," Klein said. "After all, we have so many Jewish people and people of Eastern European descent here. Mr. Aponte was happy to oblige, since his office in Washington was being overwhelmed tracing names of Vietnamese and Cambodians who died or disappeared in wars in those countries."
Klein reported that all the telephone lines of the Baltimore Red Cross office were jammed at about 12:30 p.m. yesterday, shortly after the Cable News Network ran a story on the center.
"For a while there, the only calls we were getting were requests from people who wanted to know about the center," she said. "In a short amount of time, we had a pile of pink message slips about an inch thick."
The center is a collaborative effort of the Central Maryland Chapter and American Red Cross International Services, the International Committee of the Red Cross, other national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and Magen David Adom, the Israeli counterpart of the American Red Cross.
Local businessman and Buchenwald survivor Harry Daniller said of the new center, "I think it's wonderful. I would definitely want to make use of it."
Daniller, who owns the local Clothes Outlet chain, said he hopes the center could supply "documentation of the destruction of my home town, Riga, in Latvia."
Daniller's mother was among a group of Riga citizens -- mostly women, elderly people and children under 16 -- who were lined up and machine-gunned by the Nazis in 1941. Daniller escaped the massacre but was captured by the Nazis and was put to work at German installations during most of the war. In January 1945, he was sent to Buchenwald. He was held there until the Allies liberated the camps in the spring.