Digital technology will allow Holocaust survivors, researchers and others access to one of the largest troves of Nazi-era documents — but at a pen-and-paper pace.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum told survivors’ groups last week that searches of the digital version of the Bad Arolsen archives it had obtained would take six to eight weeks to fulfill.
“People understood the challenges,” said Jeanette Friedman, who represented the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants at a closed-door meeting Jan. 17 at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.
The inquiry process, launched that day, will integrate the 46 million documents the Holocaust museum already possesses with more than 18 million documents made available by the International Tracing Service, the agency based in Bad Arolsen, Germany.
The availability of the archives ends a decade-long political and legal battle to open the Bad Arolsen archives, which houses information on the fates of about 17.5 million Jews and non-Jews. Most of the documents now available through the museum relate to incarceration, persecution and concentration camps.
Archivists ran a slide presentation showing how an index card in the files could help David Bayer, a survivor who volunteers at the museum, track his Auschwitz identification card and a census of the Jewish ghetto in his birthplace, Kozience, Poland. The census was the only extant record of his entire immediate family, some of whom perished.
More documents relating to slave labor and to postwar witness testimony are slated to be delivered by 2010.
The digital archives were released simultaneously last year to the 11 nations that control the tracing service. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, was the first to establish a request-processing service last week, although it will not have an online capability until next month.
Much of the material, delivered to the museums on hard drives packed into suitcases, is not yet digitally searchable; images of the documents and 50 million index cards that arrived between August and November of last year are in jpeg form.
Converting those images to searchable files will take much time and millions of dollars, officials of the U.S. Holocaust museum said at a news conference before the meeting with survivor groups.
“To make it machine-readable would take millions and millions,” said Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “We don’t have the time.”
Instead, said Michael Haley Goldman, the director of the museum registry, the priority would be to answer survivor questions with trained staffers searching through the material. Top priority will be given to survivors with outstanding restitution claims, on the assumption that some information obtained through the search could facilitate the claims.
Of about 800 inquiries received even before the launch of the service, most had to do with survivors seeking information on the fate of families, Goldman said.
Officials said that in some cases, the archive material would provide death and burial information, which would help in insurance restitution cases where survivors need specific documentation. But officials also warned that in the vast majority of cases, such information was not recorded or preserved at the time.
Another imperative of the archives, Bloomfield said, was to add evidence at a time of a resurgence in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
“Keeping the International Tracing Service closed at a time when the president of a country says the Holocaust didn’t happen is morally indefensible,” she said, referring to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
About 30 representatives of survivor groups attended the closed briefing; Friedman said questions were mostly technical and calm. That made for a quiet denouement to a process that at times has been roiling.
Some survivors, particularly those still seeking restitution in various forms, had campaigned for instant, Internet-searchable access, and they wondered at the snail’s pace of the effort to open the archives.
The nations controlling the International Tracing Service — Belgium, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Britain and the United States — had signed an accord in 1955 after assuming control of the archives from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Privacy concerns, particularly among the European nations and the Red Cross, kept it inaccessible, officials said. Pressure from survivor groups seeking evidence to bolster restitution claims led the tracing service to announce in 1998 that it would open the archives, but finding a formula acceptable to all was difficult.
Paul Shapiro, the director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, said some nations wanted to create a “worst common denominator” standard, applying each nation’s most restrictive standards across the board. He added that the U.S. Holocaust museum successfully argued instead that each nation should apply its own standards upon receipt of the archives.
There were no restrictions on who could ask for information, museum officials said. So citizens of a nation that applies restrictive standards to sharing the information are free to submit inquiries to Yad Vashem or to the U.S. Holocaust museum, which do not.
Shapiro said that one restriction kept in place at the behest of some of the European nations — he did not name them — was that each nation maintain a single repository.
Museum officials suggested that the provision allowing each nation to distribute the materials according to its own laws and practices meant the museum was not bound by the restriction. However, the museum will not share the materials with other U.S. Holocaust centers for now, to avoid frustrating individuals searching for information, said spokesman Andy Hollinger.
Museum staffers are specially trained to search the Bad Arolsen documents and to integrate those searches with other archives in order to provide the most comprehensive possible responses, Hollinger said.
Another consideration, according to sources, is that commission members of the tracing service who still have privacy qualms would be angered if documents were available on the Internet. Disagreements now could hobble delivery of databases still held by the tracing service.
Ultimately, said Friedman, the goal is to integrate existing archives in the United States, Israel and Europe into a single searchable database, but that could take a decade.
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Israelis prod Shoah Claims Conference for bigger share
An Israeli coalition, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israeli Holocaust survivor organizations and the Knesset’s pensioner affairs minister, is calling on the Claims Conference to give Israel a larger share of Holocaust restitution funds and more control over distribution decisions.
Leaders of the coalition announced Sunday that they were launching a unified effort to get the Claims Conference to recognize the centrality of Israel in its distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed Holocaust-era assets. The new public relations campaign was prompted by the Claims Conference’s “paltry” response to emergency aid requests from Israel during its summertime war in Lebanon, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski said.
“Only one agency did not respond when I asked for one-time emergency disbursements during the war in Lebanon this summer: the Claims Conference,” Bielski charged. The conference’s response arrived only after the war, he said, and it was “too little and too late.”
The Claims Conference denied aid requests from the Jewish Agency for hospitals and protected rooms in northern Israel, agency spokesman Yarden Vitikay said, committing only $100,000 after the war to a program for terror victims — this, from what is perhaps the richest Jewish organization in the world. By comparison, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group raised $320 million for northern Israel from its member federations.
Members of the Israeli coalition, including Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, now are demanding that the Claims Conference boost Israeli representation on its board, transfer most of its operations to Israel and increase the speed and quantity of disbursements to Israeli Holocaust survivors.
This Israeli campaign represents the latest in a long string of efforts to break the Claims Conference’s virtual monopoly of control over hundreds of millions of dollars in Holocaust restitution disbursements. In recent years, various survivor groups, advocates, community leaders and Israeli officials have tried to wrest some control over the restitution process from the conference’s board, with only limited success.
In response to Sunday’s announcement, Claims Conference communications director Hillary Kessler-Godin issued a statement saying, “Issues concerning governance or structure, as well as proposed changes to policy, can be brought to the board of directors of the organization, which meets in July every year.”
Kessler-Godin said the conference “has been outstandingly successful in negotiating for Holocaust-era compensation on behalf of Holocaust survivors worldwide in recovering property, in assisting Nazi victims and in educating future generations about the lessons of the Shoah.”
The Claims Conference has allocated emergency payments of $3.2 million to 13,000 needy Nazi victims in northern Israel, Kessler-Godin said. These are direct payments to assist victims of Nazism affected by the war. The group also recently held information sessions for Nazi victims in Israel’s North concerning their eligibility for payments and assistance from various sources of Holocaust compensation and restitution.
In addition, the Claims Conference has just allocated $1.7 million to build protected rooms in sheltered housing complexes primarily housing victims of Nazism. The Claims Conference is also preparing future projects to assist hospitals in border areas, Kessler-Godin said.
Under agreements dating back to its formation in 1951, the New York-based Claims Conference — formally, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — is the lead organization charged with recovering Jewish war-era assets from Germany, and its successor organization has become the legal heir of unclaimed Jewish properties from East Germany.
The value of the assets recovered so far from the former East Germany numbers in the billions of dollars. Every year, the Claims Conference distributes approximately $90 million of that money to organizations of its choice according to a formula whereby 80 percent goes to groups that provide services to survivors and 20 percent goes to Holocaust education and documentation projects.
Projects range from soup kitchens in Russia run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to a Tel Aviv-based Yiddish theater troupe that performs for survivors.
In the past, critics like the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors’ Leo Rechter and the World Jewish Congress’ former executive vice president, Elan Steinberg, questioned why grants were going to Birthright Israel, Yiddish theater and the installation of sprinkler systems in Israeli nursing homes rather than to needy survivors.
This time, the Israeli critics — including groups that are on the Claims Conference’s board — are focusing not on the types of programs that receive funding, but on the geographic distribution of funds and the composition and location of the body that makes funding decisions.
The Israelis say that they, rather than a multinational board dominated by American Jews, should decide how their share of the money is spent.
“We are a nation of victims of the Holocaust,” said Noah Flug, chairman of the Center of Survivor Organizations in Israel. “Today we have no say. We don’t even have autonomy in deciding how the money is distributed. Neither Israelis nor survivors are making these decisions. Things are decided for us, and without us.”
Israeli Minister for Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan — the erstwhile Mossad field officer who captured Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann — said the Claims Conference has failed survivors.
Eitan visited particularly harsh criticism on the pace of disbursements, saying money is being hoarded by the Claims Conference rather than being released to survivors while they’re still alive.
“In another 15 years, there won’t be Holocaust survivors around anymore,” Eitan said. “The Claims Conference works according to its own rules, but the money belongs only to the Holocaust survivors.”
The Claims Conference’s spokeswoman declined to respond to specific charges.
Eitan said the fulcrum of the problem lies in the composition of the Claims Conference’s board, which has not changed to keep up with the changing Jewish world. Aside from the addition of three board members, two of them survivor groups added in 1988, there have been no significant changes in the composition of the Claims Conference’s board in the 55 years since it was created. Eitan’s critiques echoed those described by critics in a special JTA investigative series in 2004.
The Israelis say such distortions should be rectified — by giving Israel more control.
“I don’t know if they know it, but the center of the Jewish world is here in Zion,” Bielski told reporters at a press conference Sunday at the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Jerusalem. “We will continue this campaign until they give us our rightful seats at the table. This is our historic responsibility.
“Our struggle today is over the centrality of the State of Israel,” Bielski said.
Three peace plans seek to fill Mideast vacuum
Since 1996, Jewish groups and their lawyers have gone to the mat with the likes of the Germans, the Swiss and the French, extracting $9 billion in restitution for the evil wrought in Europe by Nazi forces and their collaborators.
While the entire process is gradually winding down, a few more battles loom: with the Austrian government, with museums holding looted art-work and with the U.S. companies whose wartime German subsidiaries profited from slave labor.
But the clash that promises to be particularly wrenching will actually pit Jew against Jew: what to do with the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in “residual” funds, those without direct heirs or claimants.
On Sept. 11, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) will formally announce the creation of a foundation – tentatively named the Foundation for the Jewish People – that will determine the spending priorities.The foundation was actually established in June in Jerusalem, but the WJC chose to announce it at a gala event in New York to honor the politicians who have played a key role in restitution, including President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The foundation board will be made up of representatives of various Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivor groups and the Israeli government. Among the ideas floated are funding Jewish and Holocaust education, restoring Jewish communities in Europe or building Holocaust museums and memorials, said Elan Steinberg, WJC’s executive director.
“The Nazis sought to wipe out not only the Jewish people but Jewish communities and Judaism itself,” Steinberg said.
“Obviously, this has been 50 years too slow,” he added. “But I think the issue we have to address, are now forced to address, is to ensure that how these residual assets are used reflects the best interests of the Jewish people as a whole.”
Many Holocaust survivors vehemently disagree.
While they support the general need for education, commemoration, documentation and research, they believe there are more pressing needs: health care for the 250,000 survivors worldwide, including 130,000 in the United States. An estimated 1,000 survivors die each month.
“Yes, money should be spent for Jewish education and culture, but that is the obligation of klal Yisrael – of all Jews,” said Roman Kent, a survivor who serves as chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and vice-president of the Claims Conference.
“But to me, this money has one specific purpose,” Kent said. “All of it should go to the survivors. As long as there are still survivors who are old and sick and needy, they are the first obligation.”
The $9 billion figure is a bit misleading, and most of it is already spoken for, according to the WJC’s Steinberg.
Per an agreement reached with Germany in July, $5.2 billion will go to some 1.25 million forced and slave laborers. In real terms, Jewish laborers will receive 30 percent of the sum, with 140,000 slave laborers collecting up to $7,500 apiece.
Of the $1.25 billion from the Swiss banks, $200 million went into a humanitarian fund for the 250,000 Jewish survivors around the world. Lump-sum payments ranged from $500 to $1,400. In the United States, nearly $30 million was allocated to more than 60,000 survivors, or $502 apiece.
According to Steinberg, France has committed to $700 million; Holland, $400 million; German insurers, $350 million-plus; various settlements for stolen artwork amount to $200 million; Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali, $150 million; Norway, about $70 million; and Great Britain, roughly $50 million.In addition, in negotiations with the Claims Conference in the 1950s, Germany agreed to pay annual pensions to some 85,000 survivors. That total has run to nearly $50 billion and about $500 million a year.The Claims Conference is also responsible for selling off unclaimed property from the former East Germany, which now generates close to $80 million per year.
Twenty percent is allo-cated for Holocaust-related research and documentation, while 80 percent goes for social welfare programs for survivors in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. This includes home care assistance for 18,000 survivors in all three regions and 3 million hot meals and 800,000 food packages per year in the former Soviet Union, said Gideon Taylor, the conference’s executive vice-president.
“We’ve been able to make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Taylor said. “The question is, how do we use the limited resources available from restitution to help the neediest survivors all around the world? It’s what our allocations process grapples with: balancing resources with competing needs.”
Taylor concedes that not everyone will come away satisfied.
But what lies at the heart of this intracommunal debate are two contentious issues: Who are the rightful heirs to all that was lost in Europe, and who has the right to decide how the money should be spent?
Holocaust survivors and their advocates say the stolen property and assets lost did not in fact belong to “the Jewish people as a whole” but to European Jewish communities and individuals. Furthermore, they say, it is the survivors, and they alone, who are entitled to decide the spending priorities, not the groups that negotiated on their behalf.
“We’re not going to be around forever,” said Joe Sachs, co-chairman of the Florida Survivors Coa-lition. “Let’s give these people their due. Just a little justice. A little peace of mind from their health care problems in their last few years.”