Nazi Files on 17.5 million Revealed After 60 Years

50 Million Pages of Nazi Records Made Public in 2006

ITS Holocaust Archive in Bad Arolsen
Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images News

After 60 years of being hidden away from the public, Nazi records about the 17.5 million people — Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mental patients, handicapped, political prisoners and other undesirables — they persecuted during the regime's 12 years in power will be open to the public.

What is the ITS Bad Arolsen Holocaust Archive?

The ITS Holocaust Archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany contains the fullest records of Nazi persecutions in existence. The archives contain 50 million pages, housed in thousands of filing cabinets in six buildings. Overall, there are 16 miles of shelves holding information about the victims of the Nazis.

The documents — scraps of paper, transport lists, registration books, labor documents, medical records, and finally death registers — record the arrest, transportation, and extermination of the victims. In some case, even the amount and size of the lice found on the prisoners’ heads were recorded.

This archive contains the famous Schindler’s List, with the names of 1,000 prisoners saved by factory owner Oskar Schindler who told the Nazis he needed the prisoners to work in his factory.

Records of Anne Frank’s journey from Amsterdam to Bergen-Belsen, where she died at the age of 15, can also be found among the millions of documents in this archive.

The Mauthausen concentration camp’s “Totenbuch,” or Death Book, records in meticulous handwriting how, on April 20, 1942, a prisoner was shot in the back of the head every two minutes for 90 hours. The Mauthausen camp commandant ordered these executions as a birthday present for Hitler.

Toward the end of the war, when the Germans were struggling, the record keeping was not able to keep up with the extermination. And unknown numbers of prisoners were marched directly from trains to gas chambers in places like Auschwitz without being registered.

How were the archives created?

As the Allies conquered Germany and entered the Nazi concentration camps beginning in the spring of 1945, they found detailed records that had been kept by the Nazis. The documents were taken to the German town of Bad Arolsen, where they were sorted, filed, and locked way. In 1955, the International Tracing Service (ITS), an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was put in charge of the archives.

Why were the records closed to the public?

An agreement signed in 1955 stated that no data that could harm the former Nazi victims or their families should be published. Thus, the ITS kept the files closed to the public because of concerns about the victims' privacy. Information was doled out in minimal amounts to survivors or their descendants.

This policy generated much ill-feeling among Holocaust survivors and researchers. In response to pressure from these groups, the ITS commission declared itself in favor of opening up the records in 1998 and began scanning the documents into digital form in 1999.

Germany, however, opposed amending the original convention to allow for public access to the records. German opposition, which was based on possible misuse of information, became the main barrier to opening the Holocaust archives to the public.

Yet until now Germany resisted the opening, on the grounds that the records involve private information about individuals that could be misused.

Why are the records now being made available?

In May 2006, following years of pressure from the United States and survivors' groups, Germany changed its viewpoint and agreed to a fast revision of the original agreement.

Brigitte Zypries, the German justice minister at the time, announced this decision while in Washington for a meeting with Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Zypries said,

"Our point of view is that the protection of privacy rights has reached by now a standard high enough to ensure ... the protection of privacy of those concerned."

Why are the records important?

The immensity of information in the archives will provide Holocaust researchers with work for generations. Holocaust scholars have already started to revise their estimates of the number of camps run by the Nazis according to new information being found. And the archives present a formidable obstacle to Holocaust deniers.

In addition, with the youngest survivors very swiftly dying each year, time is running out for survivors to learn about their loved ones. Today survivors fear that after they die, no one will remember the names of their family members who were killed in the Holocaust. The archives need to be accessible while there are still survivors alive who have the knowledge and drive to access it.

The opening of the archives means that survivors and their descendents can finally find information about the loved ones they lost, and this may bring them some well-deserved closure before the end of their lives.