Archive unlocks secrets of Holocaust bureaucracy
BAD AROLSEN, Germany, May 14: The death register from the Mauthausen concentration camp contains rows of neatly printed names.
The times of execution are each two minutes apart. The date is April 20, 1942 -- Adolf Hitler's 53rd birthday.
''Every second minute there is another prisoner and this goes on for pages,'' says Udo Jost, an archivist at the International Tracing Service (ITS) which looks after the world's biggest collection of documents from World War Two.
''They shot 300 prisoners for Hitler's birthday present: not just shot but then registered them by name.'' Millions of documents, like this register from the camp near Linz in Austria, sit in the cellars of a converted hotel in the central German town of Bad Arolsen, testament to the chillingly efficient bureaucracy of the Nazi regime.
Some 17 million people are named in the documents -- those who were murdered, those who survived the concentration camps and then the millions who were forced to work on farms and in factories under Hitler's employment policies.
The ITS, under the management of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been administering the archive and answering queries for around 60 years. Until now, Germany had staunchly opposed opening the archive to a wider public.
But under pressure from Holocaust groups, authorities said last month they would allow historians to use the archive, and also give a digital copy of the 47 million documents it contains to each of the 11 nations which oversee the work of the ITS.
The 11-country board will meet from next Tuesday to alter the ITS' mandate, the first step in the process of unlocking the store.
Changing the mandate requires unanimous approval.
Much of the archive's material is highly sensitive.
''Believe me,'' Jost says pointing to drawer after drawer of workers' documents in the basement of the ITS building, ''there was no firm of any size which did not use slave labourers.''
The racks of green movable shelves on the second floor of the archive look like those one might expect to find in a tax office or a library. The contents, gathered since the end of World War Two from archives across Germany, Russia and the former communist eastern European bloc, have never been seen by the public.
A pink ''imprisonment order'' details how a Pole ended up in a concentration camp for his affair with a German woman; a sheaf of papers neatly typed by a Gestapo officer records a woman's protest at the sterilisation of her mixed-race son, Gregor.
The detail is often absurd.
A lined page with neat handwriting tells how prisoners at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in modern Poland, were obliged to search each other for lice.
''Block 8, 14 January 1945, 784-strong. 37 lice found in 13 prisoners,'' the note reads, listing the affected inmates.
''One laughs but in this case, this individual was recorded as having one louse on this day in this camp,'' Jost says, pointing to a name on the list.
''At least we can confirm that on this day he was in Gross-Rosen and for that fact alone then he would have got 7,500 euros (,539) from the forced labour fund.'' The German government and industry started paying compensation to slave workers and other Holocaust survivors around five years ago.
Not only does the archive contain information on concentration camps like Auschwitz and Belsen, as well as the fates of millions of Jews, Roma and other victims of Hitler's regime, it also contains lists of postwar displaced persons.
Arthur Berger, an adviser at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said this area had yet to be researched.
''The basic outlines of history are not going to be changed by this,'' he told Reuters. ''But it is the details, the human interest in these stories which is so important. There is a new richness that is added and that is something that was missing.'' PAINSTAKING WORK Lorries full of paperwork arrived at the centre from across the Allied zones after the war and a team of over 1,000 sifted through them to create a complex card register of all the names.
Three rooms alone are stacked full of cardboard drawers, each containing hundreds of cards marked with name after name.
Among these are former chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, listed under his given name Herbert Frahm. Both men opposed Hitler.
Archivists believe Bad Arolsen serves to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
''Working here you get a different sense of this period in history and also of the responsibility which we have as the children born in the postwar period ... to keep memories alive of these people, these victims,'' 52-year-old Jost said.
Decades after the end of the war, the requests for information continue to pour in. This has created a backlog at Bad Arolsen and added to the calls for the archive to be opened up to other organisations.
''They are three years behind in giving answers,'' Berger said.
''The survivors are elderly now and in their 80s and 90s and so they deserve answers quickly.
''We owe a moral debt to the families and every country has to try to help them find out finally what happened to their relatives.''