The International Committee of the Red Cross and the German government yesterday announced that extensive archives on the Holocaust are now open to to the public. The International Tracing Service archive, located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, comprises more than 50 million pages and takes up 16 miles of shelving and filing cabinets in six buildings. It includes meticulous records kept at concentration camps by the Nazis and a complete postwar index of every non-citizen who was on German soil during the war years. The Nazis kept meticulous records on the smallest details from the number of lice on a prisoner's head to the exact moment of execution.
Up until now the documents in the archive have been used mainly to help trace missing persons or provide information in support of compensation claims and only archive staff members have been able to see the originals. The US State Department has been at the forefront of a growing move in recent years to open up the archives to a broader public and their website states that "(w)e welcome the entry into force today of an agreement opening the extensive Holocaust-era archives of the ITS to survivors, their families and to researchers."
The archive is a labyrinth of paper that has never been organized by a historian or even by a professionally trained archivist and contains many old and brittle documents. The good news is that over the last 10 years 70 % of the documents have been digitised and the ITS plans to complete digitization by 2011 - and each country of the internation commission governing the ITS will receive a complete copy. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will administer the US copy of the archive. Organizing the digital material to make it accessible will be a major job because there is a huge amount of material and many of the documents are hand-written, some in old German script, and spelling is inconsistent, making it difficult to convert files into digitally searchable format. Once the documents are formatted for the Holocaust Museum’s computer system, the Museum will facilitate access to the documents for researchers. According to the State Dept., he formatting process is now underway and is expected to take several months.