Revealing Holocaust's horrors

50 million sealed documents will be made public

June 17, 2006|By JEFFREY FLEISHMAN | JEFFREY FLEISHMAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAD AROLSEN, Germany -- He was a Jew with missing teeth and flat feet. He was married with three children. He fixed heaters, wore reading glasses and wheezed with bronchitis. On March 28, 1943, he surrendered his trousers, winter coat, socks, slippers and shaving kit and stepped through the gates of Auschwitz.

The man known as Max C. is a ghost of pencil and ink, shreds of his memory preserved by the notations of those who made up the Nazi bureaucracy of death. These officers, guards and clerks logged the mundane and the mesmerizing across millions of pages, their meticulous keystrokes and ornate penmanship belying the brutality of their trade.

Max C.'s Auschwitz medical card listed a cursory history: hand injury, missed five days of concentration camp work, Dec. 31, 1943; open head wound, March 31, 1944; gangrene, May 16, 1944; virus, July 9, 1944. He was transferred to Buchenwald. The last medical report is for a back injury on March 30, 1945 - two weeks before the camp was liberated. There is no mention of Max C. after that.

Such stories are stacked in files here at the Red Cross International Tracing Service, which houses one of the largest collections of documents on World War II concentration and slave labor camps. The service was founded in 1943 to search for missing people. It has unearthed the facts and fates of millions of Nazi victims, and later this year the organization is expected to open its archives to historians and scholars for the first time. A Los Angeles Times reporter was recently shown samples of the papers.

Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors have long sought to study the 50 million documents and 17.5 million names of those considered undesirable by the Third Reich. But the tracing service, overseen by a commission representing 11 countries, including Germany, which has strict confidentiality laws, has restricted access for decades. In April, Germany agreed to open the files, though questions about privacy are still being debated by the commission.

"Given the number of documents, I personally believe we'll have a new understanding of the Holocaust," said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin. "We'll see what the victims had to endure, and the details will sharpen the horror of what happened. Historical documents always cast new light."

Along rows of dull metal filing cabinets, past maps and artifacts, past sepia papers and brittle photographs, is a room where scanners click and spin, turning fading documents into computer bytes. The room is crowded with boxes, binders and shelves, and the paperwork seems as constant as the ocean tides. The people working here don't look up much; their fingers are supple and quick, peeling away plastic coatings, gently smoothing crinkled edges.

Their sounds linger down the hall and into another room where Gabriele Wilke spends her days cataloging in the section on concentration camps and deportations. She is a detective, twisting strands of symbols and words into short narratives. She knows that a black upside-down triangle sewn on camp clothing signified a Gypsy; a pink triangle, a homosexual; a red one, a political prisoner; a star, a Jew. Her finger runs over lines of ink that dried more than half a century ago: A Slovakian Jew, born in 1923, died of pneumonia in Auschwitz at 8:40 a.m. Aug. 6, 1942.

"It's a special thing to touch such an original document," she said. "After a while you develop a routine, and it's work, but every now and then something jumps out and touches you. I do this person the best favor I can if I can say I found something, if I have some piece of evidence. Nothing is more sad than closing a file that says, `Nothing Found.' I have been not only amazed by the amount of paperwork the Nazis kept, but by the meticulousness of it."

Every year the service accumulates thousands of new files, many of them combed from archives and folders in the former East Bloc. The Red Cross has responded to more than 11 million requests from 62 countries since documents seized by Allies at the end of World War II were first stored in a former Nazi SS barracks in this Baroque spa town. The center had 151,000 queries last year, many of them from former slave laborers with compensation claims and children and grandchildren of Nazi victims seeking to construct mosaics of lost lives.

"The Nazis documented any tiny thing," said Maria Raabe, who has worked at the service for 36 years. "For some concentration camps we have all the names but not all the documents. In parts of Eastern Europe we have very little. We have almost no documentation from the Nazi-run camp Gross-Rosen. But what we do have from there are documents specifying how many lice were found on inmates' heads, and this may be the only paperwork to show that this person was here when."

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