May 16, 2007
THE UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM AND THE INTERNATIONAL TRACING SERVICE ARCHIVE
There has recently been substantial misinformation on an issue of vital importance to Holocaust survivors - the opening of the International Tracing Service (ITS) archive. It is important to set the record straight. The survivors deserve better.
Located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, the ITS, the largest closed Holocaust archive in the world, is being prepared to be accessible beyond the ITS for the first time since it was created over 60 years ago. This is happening only because of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the extraordinary and tireless efforts of Paul Shapiro, the director of its Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
Over the past few years, the Museum has led an aggressive effort to open this critically important collection. Working with the US State Department, the International Red Cross, and ten other nations, we pressed this urgent case in multiple ways. The urgency, of course, was for the survivors, many of whom appealed to us to help them receive information about the fate of their loved ones.
The ITS archive is controlled by an 11-nation treaty signed in 1955, and a number of signatories insisted on amending the treaty before the archive could be made public. As a result of our efforts in the past year, the US, Israel, Netherlands, Poland, the UK, Germany and Belgium have approved amendments to the treaty. France, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg are in the process of doing so. There is a complicated legal process that could not be circumvented. The treaty and its amendments can be easily accessed on the ITS website www.ITS-arolsen.org.
Because of the time-consuming process of national approvals by 11 countries, the Museum pushed for a two-track process —working on digitizing, hardware, software, and finding aids, while simultaneously advancing the political process so that no more precious time is lost.
A critical part of the breakthrough in opening the archive was the agreement that each country designate one repository with the technological, archival, and historical expertise to handle the material and serve the survivors and their families as well as historians. Along with Yad Vashem, the Museum is the world’s leading center of Holocaust documentation, research and education. No other institution in the world comes remotely close to these two institutions in their capacity to manage this material. And, indeed Yad Vashem will hold the material for Israel.
The archive is enormous. The first batch of digitized material, expected to arrive at the Museum this fall, includes 13.5 million documents related to incarcerations, including many concentration camp records. We will also receive copies of the 40 million index cards (of the 17.5 million names) created by ITS over the years. The amount of data in this first batch alone is equivalent to approximately 8,000 CDs! (We expect the second batch, which includes slave labor records, to arrive in 2008 and the third and final batch, which includes DP records, to arrive at some point after that.)
The ITS was never set up to be used by anyone other than its own staff. The Museum must therefore take several steps to make the material usable. First, we must invest in new hardware to substantially expand the storage capacity of our network servers. Second, contrary to some assertions that grossly oversimplify accessibility, the Museum must create a special software system to make the records more easily accessible than they have been at the ITS. Third, we must train many members of our staff to use the new software so that they can respond to survivors quickly.
Naturally, we will be reaching out to the survivor community with instructions on how to contact the Museum to seek information on their families. We have teams of people already working hard on this massive, historic and expensive undertaking.
The Museum wishes to serve survivors and their families not only in the US but the world over. No survivor will be required to come to Washington. First, no survivor should be required to learn the complexities of doing research in an archive. Second, requiring survivors to come to Washington would defeat the whole purpose for which we opened this archive. It was so that our Museum could do this research for survivors and their families – and do it much faster than the ITS which often kept people waiting years for a response. It is outrageous that survivors were treated like this.
Survivors deserve a great deal. They deserve accurate information about the ITS and about the Museum. Most crucially, survivors deserve accurate and timely information about their families. In spite of what some people would have them believe, the Museum will help those survivors whose family records are in the ITS archive get that information – at long last.