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Survivors give museum high marks for action in Nazi archive

NEW YORK (JTA) — Barely a year after Holocaust survivors publicly vilified the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its handling of a trove of Nazi-era archives, the institution says it now has about half of an estimated 50 million pages of records in hand and is turning around most requests for information in eight to 10 weeks.

The museum says it has received about 7,500 requests for information, and between one quarter and one half of those receive some documentation from the archives — a massive cache of documents stored for decades by the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany. 

“It’s a pretty high number when you recognize the number of actual survivors still with us has declined dramatically,” Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, told JTA. “As a result of what the museum achieved, the flow of inquiries to Arolsen went up, and to Yad Vashem.

"A lot of people became jaded about this issue before the collections were opened because they had waited for 10 years and got no answer. We encourage those people to come back and ask again.”

For decades the archive — which includes records of concentration camp incarcerations, forced labor, displaced persons and resettlement of an estimated 17 million people —  remained closed to researchers and under the authority of the International Tracing Service, which operates under the umbrella of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Survivors could make requests for information, but often it took years for them to be fulfilled.

In 2006, the 11 countries responsible for the archive moved to open it to the public. The transfer of electronic copies of the files began the next year and in November 2007, after the 11 countries had ratified the agreement, the archive was opened to the public.

Still, the museum came under withering criticism from survivors groups, accusing it of indifference to survivor needs by refusing to make the files freely available for search online. Much of that criticism appears to have dissipated.

“We’ve got no complaints — zero,” said Jeanette Friedman, director of communications for the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. “No being pulled aside in an event. Nothing like that.”

Klara Firestone, the founder and president of Second Generation L.A., who said last year that if the museum did not provide immediate remote access to the archive it would be a “serious blow” to the survivor community, told JTA she didn’t know anyone on the West Coast who had made a search request.

“I really don’t feel it’s fair for me to even comment,” Firestone said.

David Gold said he made a request for information about his mother and received a response nine days later.

“The Holocaust Museum is by far superior in terms of any other Web site,” Gold said. “I think Yad Vashem is put to shame in terms of what the museum has done and certainly in terms of what’s available online. There’s certainly no comparison.”

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