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Preserving a grim history

An international effort by museums and repositories may help Holocaust survivors track loved ones.

December 07, 2007|Arthur Max | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — When Bill Connelly heard that the heirs of a collector of Jewish memorial books were cleaning out his library, he rushed to New York and fished dozens of the Yiddish-language volumes out of a municipal trash bin.

With their lists of residents from long-vanished European communities -- sometimes recorded street by street -- the books often are all that's left of entire villages or neighborhoods consumed in the Nazi genocide of World War II.

To rescue a name is to rescue a life from oblivion, Holocaust survivors believe.

The yizkor books, from the Hebrew word for "remember," are now on the shelves, alongside hundreds of other volumes, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where Connelly works.

"It's a gesture to the centuries: It says, 'This is who we are, and we will not disappear,' " said Connelly, referring to the books he salvaged 10 years ago that formed the foundation of the museum's library.

Now, the museum is gaining access to millions more names, the largest registry of Holocaust victims existing anywhere.

For more than 60 years, they were locked in a secretive archive in Germany that houses records scooped up by Allied troops from concentration camps, Nazi SS offices and postwar displaced-persons compounds.

In August, the International Tracing Service of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which administers the archive, began transferring digital copies of its documents to the museum in Washington, to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, and to the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw.

It will take the ITS two more years to finish copying onto hard drives the 16 linear miles of paper now filling a half-dozen buildings in the small German town of Bad Arolsen.

Sharing the files will allow survivors and victims' relatives to see true images of documents -- transportation lists, Gestapo orders, camp registers, slave labor booklets, death books -- that evince their tortures and that may have determined whether they lived or died.

With the legal barriers nearly cleared away, the museum will be ready by early next year to begin helping survivors track their history.

"Each day we are losing survivors," said museum director Sara J. Bloomfield, and many go to their graves without knowing where or when their loved ones died.

At Bad Arolsen, names fill rooms.

Though now digitized and entered onto a database, the ITS retains all 50 million index cards bearing the names of victims, concentration camp inmates, slave laborers and displaced persons mentioned somewhere in the vast warehouse of papers.

Many are duplications, filed under different spellings, and the cards refer to about 17.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews. The cards alone occupy three cavernous rooms.

Survivors have been waiting for decades to rummage through the archive in search of names.

David Mermelstein, 78, now a Miami resident, will look for his brothers.

"My older brother was with me the whole time," from Auschwitz through two other camps. Then they were separated when Mermelstein suffered a work accident. "About three months before we were liberated, that was the last time I saw him."

Though the Holocaust and the Nazi reign must be among the most intensively studied 12 years in history, the files could still prove invaluable for new research. "It won't change the big picture, but no scholars have ever had their hands on this material," Bloomfield said. For historians, "there are going to be some very exciting years ahead."

Joe White, a specialist on the earliest concentration camps created within weeks of Hitler's 1933 rise to power, hopes to tap the files for new data on privileged groups, like the inmates who acted as overseers known as "kapos."

But White, who is with the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, also is waiting for the chance to just explore. "Turning the pages, you find things you weren't expecting."

Scott H. O'Gara, a teacher of Holocaust studies at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, N.Y., said the ITS archive has a rich library of English-language testimony recorded by U.S. Army officers immediately after the war that could throw up new names of SS officers.

"The reports were prepared contemporaneously with the liberation of the camps, and my hope would be that they would prove useful in tracking down some of the perpetrators," he said.

When complete, the arrival of the ITS archive will more than double the 40 million pages of records already compiled by the Washington museum, making it one of the world's largest repositories of Holocaust resource material along with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The Israeli memorial already has a database of 3.3 million names of the 6 million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust and has assembled a team to comb through the newly acquired ITS material for more.

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