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Miami Herald: Open Nazi Archives to Victims, Survivors

Op-Ed

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Miami Herald: Open Nazi Archives to Victims, Survivors

By Joseph Biden

More than 60 years after the end of World War II, why is it still so hard to access files documenting the Nazis' atrocious acts?

Thousands of Holocaust survivors, historians and researchers are being denied access to files that tell the story of unspeakable crimes committed by the Nazis. Many of the files are about the survivors themselves; still, they cannot view them.

After the Allies won the war, they took possession of millions of files and documents, penned by the Nazis themselves, which chronicled every aspect of their horrific Final Solution. To maintain this catalogue of atrocities, the Allies established an archive called the International Tracing Service, in the town of Bad Arolsen, Germany. Today, Bad Arolsen contains some 30 million to 50 million pages that record the individual fates of more than 17 million Holocaust victims.

The Tracing Service was established to unify families and help survivors learn the ultimate fate of their lost loved ones. Indeed, it was recently reported that settlement of a class action lawsuit over Nazi-era life insurance policies may be delayed pending the opening of the Bad Arolsen archives. Its records may also support legal claims against companies accused of wrongdoing during the war. Yet, access to the records is severely limited, and very few survivors have ever been allowed direct, much less prompt, access.

The justification for this delay was supposedly privacy concerns, logistical problems associated with making the records widely accessible and fears of new legal claims. None of these can justify the tragic result -- thousands of elderly survivors have passed away in recent years, never knowing what happened to their families, even though the answer may be sitting on a shelf in Germany. This is unacceptable.

Eleven countries serve on the International Commission that supervises the Tracing Service. Last May, after years of delay, they commendably agreed to make these archives public for the first time. They also agreed to place digitized copies at Holocaust research centers in other countries, but only after each of the 11 countries completed their own ratification procedure. In light of the advanced age of the remaining survivors, all committed to make ratification an urgent priority, with the goal of concluding the process by the end of 2006. However, only Israel and the United States met this deadline, and there are now reports that full ratification could take three years or more. That is simply too long.

Troubled by ongoing and needless delays, in December I wrote to the ambassadors of the nine remaining Tracing Service Commission countries -- Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom -- urging their governments to swiftly ratify the agreement. The member countries have recently announced a meeting in March to explore alternative paths to opening the archives. I applaud this move, but we need more than just meetings; we need action. For example, there is no good reason why last May's agreements cannot be implemented provisionally, pending final ratification. I urge the delegates to do whatever is necessary to quickly bring to light the horrifying but important truths locked up at Bad Arolsen.

Last fall, the government of Iran hosted a conference; its absurd and outrageous premise was that the Holocaust did not occur. At a time when dangerously deluded efforts to deny the Holocaust are on the rise, how can we keep the Nazis' own records from proving their horrors to the world? And how can we deny the Nazis' victims -- who have suffered enough for a thousand lifetimes -- the truth they so clearly deserve?


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