Archive should be opened &mdash survivors deserve that much

Given the substantial misinformation being disseminated recently about the opening of the International Tracing Service archive, it is important to set the record straight.

The issue is of vital importance to Holocaust survivors, and they deserve better.

Located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, the ITS is the largest closed Holocaust archive in the world. It is being prepared to be accessible beyond the ITS for the first time since the archive was created more than 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.

In the past few years, the museum has led an aggressive effort to open this critically important collection. Working with the U.S. State Department, the International Red Cross and 10 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 United States, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium have approved amendments. France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg are in the process of doing so. A complicated legal process could not be circumvented.

Due to 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 expertise to handle the material and serve the survivors and their families as well as historians.

The U.S. museum, along with Yad Vashem in Israel, is the world’s leading center of Holocaust documentation, research and education. No other institution in the world comes remotely close to these two in their capacity to manage this material.

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. The third and final batch, which includes DP records, will arrive at some point afterward.

The International Tracing Service archive was never set up to be used by anyone other than its staff, so the U.S. Holocaust museum must 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 staff to use the new software so they can respond quickly to survivors.

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 already have teams working hard on this massive, historic and expensive undertaking.

The museum wishes to serve survivors and their families in the United States and throughout the world. No survivor will be required to come to Washington — requiring survivors to come here would defeat the whole purpose of opening this archive.

No survivor should be required to learn the complexities of doing research in an archive. The archive is being opened so that our museum can do the research for survivors and their families — and much faster than the ITS, which often kept people waiting years for a response. Survivors being treated like this is outrageous.

Survivors deserve a great deal. They deserve accurate information about the ITS and about the museum. And most importantly, survivors deserve fast, accurate information about their families.

In spite of what some people would have them believe, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will help those survivors whose family records are in the ITS archive get that information — at long last.

Sara J. Bloomfield is director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.