Holocaust survivors are venting their anger at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum over its decision not to allow immediate electronic access to the long-secret records of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany.
Many survivors and members of the second generation have complained in the past about the museum’s fundraising and other issues, but a dispute over prohibiting immediate remote access to the Bad Arolsen documentation the way other government documents are accessed brought many in the Holocaust community to express their anger publicly as never before.
The documents are expected to be transferred to the Holocaust museum here under an international treaty. The archives include millions of images relating to concentration-camp prisoner documents.
“Where does the museum get the chutzpah?” asked David Schaecter, president of the Miami-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation. He singled out Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and the point man for the Bad Arolsen transfer.
“I don’t know how in the name of God Shapiro can look at himself in the mirror,” especially after his March 28 testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, Schaecter said. Schaecter sat next to Shapiro as they testified to the House about the need to bring the Bad Arolsen documents to America.
Shapiro did not respond to calls seeking comment. Arthur Berger, a senior adviser to the museum on external affairs, defended him.
“Paul Shapiro has probably done more than any individual in the world to get this archive opened,” Berger said. “He has literally worked day and night to fulfill our moral responsibility to help survivors get information and not allow them to pass away without finding out more information about themselves and their families.”
Berger said the museum was waiting for the material to be released before it could provide specifics of how it would make the material available. But he said the museum was committed to making the archive widely accessible.
“The museum has been leading the effort for years to open the archives at Bad Arolsen, and we’ve really been working aggressively to help survivors nationwide gain access to the archives,” he said. “We have done whatever is possible and we will continue to have the highest commitment to ensure that when we have the material, we will do everything in our power to get access to that information to survivors. Whatever it takes.”
But that hasn’t mollified survivors and their advocates.
“After recent dealings with the museum, it is more and more evident that they are not committed to the survivors in whose name this museum was built,” said Klara Firestone, founding president of Second Generation Los Angeles and a member of the coordinating council of the Generations of the Shoah International.
In the era of instant access to documents offered by Google, Yahoo, ProQuest and LexisNexis, Holocaust survivors and advocates say they don’t understand why the documents can’t be made available to local libraries or home computers the way government documents ordinarily are accessed.
On May 9, a representative of several survivor groups sent a note to congressional staffers who work on committees that are considering the museum’s quest for sole control of the archive. Several congressional committees are involved with oversight of treaties and museum funding.
“The consensus from survivors as well as community leaders is that something is definitely amiss here,” said Samuel Dubbin, attorney for the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, a national coalition of elected survivor leaders. “The museum seems to be constructing an access protocol based on a continuing sensitivity to European privacy concerns and probably in a way that masks individual company involvement in slave labor system. By no means… will this be made Internet-accessible.”
Firestone agreed, telling JTA, “After 60 years of concealing and hiding, when they open this archive, if it does not give immediate I mean immediate and instant remote access to everyone, it will be just another blow” to the Holocaust community.
The existing search mechanism in the Bad Arolsen archives works as fast as Google, but museum sources said they wanted to create a proprietary search engine that will be accessible only from on-site computers.
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, who served on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council under three presidents, added, “I would hope that the Bad Arolsen archives could be as easily accessible as modern science makes possible. Those archives are for the survivors’ needs and use first, and scholars later.”
Some survivors assert that the archive transfer is just a pretext for the museum to engage in aggressive fundraising. Schaecter bristled as he recalled a recent experience.
“I come back from Washington after I testified before the House about these archives,” he recalled to JTA, “I’m not home for 6 hours, I get a call from the Boca office of the museum from their fundraiser, and he says, ‘I heard about your testimony and I heard about you caring’ and all this nonsense! ‘Since you are deeply involved,’ he says, ‘maybe you should make a meaningful donation.’ “
It “would be such an unbelievable blow if the museum gets these records,” he said.
Berger, however, said the museum was the natural choice to house the archive.
“As America’s national memorial for victims of the Holocaust and one of the two largest repositories of Holocaust-related documentation in the world” the other is the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, which also will receive the Bad Arolsen documents “the museum is the appropriate site in the United States for this collection,” he said.
Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, who served for a decade on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, asserted, “I have great respect for Paul Shapiro. I am also convinced that without the museum and U.S. government, we would not have the archive. But the museum is not immune to criticism or difference of opinion. I am a firm believer that all documentation and archives should be as widely accessible as is humanly and technologically possible. So long as there are no longer legal impediments, I see absolutely no reason why the documents should not be made accessible on the Internet.”
The first 10 million images of concentration-camp documents will soon transfer to the museum under embargo, pending full ratification of the treaty releasing the documents. The 11-nation commission that controls the International Tracing Service initialed a May 16, 2006, treaty authorizing release, but each of the 11 nations must ratify the treaty under its existing laws.
The last four countries France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg are expected to ratify the release late this year or early next year. Once ratified, national delegates must sign the single, controlling copy of the treaty; only then will the treaty be approved and implemented.
A museum spokesman reiterated the institution’s stance that the files will not be made accessible via the Internet. At first the museum claimed that the treaty prohibited Internet access. The museum then reversed itself, saying the treaty was silent on the Internet issue.
Despite repeated requests, the museum refused to provide a copy of the 11-nation treaty, claiming it was secret.
Congressional sources and State Department sources scoffed at that characterization. A copy of the treaty obtained by JTA confirms that it does not prohibit an American institution from placing the digitized files on the Internet or a national database that can be easily accessed.
Meanwhile, survivors are organizing protest letters to send to congressmen and other officials in what one survivor called a “race against time to stop Shapiro” from engineering a restrictive transfer of the documents at the International Tracing Service’s annual meeting in Amsterdam on May 14-15.
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of the award-winning “IBM and the Holocaust” and is responsible for a series of investigations revealing the contents of the ITS archives at Bad Arolsen.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.