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Breaking years of deadlock, the German government announced Tuesday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. that it will cooperate with the United States in its bid to open the Holocaust archive, housed in a former SS barracks in the town of Bad Arolsen.
The files, which make up one of the largest Holocaust archives in the world, are more than 15 miles long and hold up to 50 million documents, some seized by the Allies as they liberated concentration camps.
“Getting Germany behind this is quite a significant step forward,” German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said at a news conference at the museum.
The U.S. government, Jewish groups and researchers at former Nazi concentration camp sites have pressed for access to victims’ personal data, saying it would provide fresh insight into the Nazi regime and its victims.
“This is the most comprehensive archival collection relating to the fate of people who were targeted and victimized,” said Paul Shapiro, the Holocaust Museum’s chief researcher. The data could deepen understanding of Nazi prisoner transports and the slave labor system, he said.
If it is opened, historians and families of Holocaust victims will have access to the records.
Until now, survivors and family members have had to request access to files through the International Tracing Service, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross. They often had to wait years for a response.
The tracing service is run by an 11-country commission, which includes Germany, the United States, Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland.
According to Zypries, Germany was not the only country that has balked at the opening. Italy, for example, still has to be persuaded, she said.
German officials have feared that releasing the names of victims would lead to a new raft of lawsuits seeking compensation from Germany, similar to the pressure that led the government and German companies to compensate Nazi-era slave laborers in recent years.
Shapiro said the fear of fresh lawsuits was overblown, in part because deadlines in most U.S. class-action settlements of Nazi-era compensation claims have passed.
“I have not heard anyone calling for this material to be opened for that purpose,” he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
The remaining nine countries all still have to agree before the archive can be opened. Some countries need parliamentary approval before they endorse the plan.
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