- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

BAD AROLSEN, Germany — Hundreds of thousands of Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians and other European nationals have little or no chance of ever receiving monetary compensation for the work they did as slave laborers in Nazi Germany during World War II.

In most cases, their records exist in the vast archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS) here — the world’s biggest repository of files pertaining to the Holocaust — and provide ample proof of the hardships they endured as industrial workers, miners and servants for salaries as low as 27 Reichmarks ($8) a month. But the ITS has been painfully slow about making the data available for compensation claims.

The diabolical irony of the Nazi forced-labor regime is epitomized in an “Arbeitsbuch” (work booklet for foreigners), thousands of which have been collected by the ITS.

One of them contains the registration number of Petro Schwarz along with his photograph and date of birth: Jan. 21, 1925. The impeccable text is in the German language’s Old Latin script. It includes Mr. Schwarz’s home address in Poland, gives the location of his employment as Silesia — then part of Germany, but annexed by Poland after the war — and specifies his job as a coal miner.

There are rows upon rows of social security payment stamps on the inside pages, each one emblazoned with the Nazi swastika and all of them pasted with perfect precision. It looks as if Mr. Schwarz’s employers wanted to make it look as if the economic and social injustice from which they benefited was quite orderly and normal setup.

The ITS’ vast store of documentation was collected mainly by American and Allied soldiers in the final months of the war and its immediate aftermath. The troops were ordered to collect all the files stashed away by the Nazi SS in the offices of the death and concentration camps.

According to Manfred Kesting, a dedicated ITS archivist and German national who has been working for it since 1985, the Allied authorities in the former U.S., British and French zones of occupied Germany also ordered the Germans “to report all foreigners” who were in their country during the war.

“Hundreds of work booklets poured in from all over Germany,” Mr. Kesting said.

Later, the Soviet Union transferred its hoard of Nazi documents. By that time, the ITS had been placed under the exclusive direction of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But until the ITS’ 50 million documents are digitalized — a snail’s-pace process under way since 1998 — it will remain technically unable to make them readily and quickly available to the survivors who need them. There is a backlog of 320,000 requests, according to Toni Pfanner, the interim director of the German-funded and Red Cross-supervised institution.

“Anyway,” said Mr. Pfanner who arrived at the ITS’ wooded, parklike compound in this baroque-style town barely two weeks ago, “the deadline for claims has passed.”

Mr. Pfanner was referring to a special fund administered by the German government, most of whose money is drawn from the giant firms that employed the claimants. Claims under the fund had a deadline of December 2001, and all the compensation activities under the program is expected to close by the end of this year.

Death-camp survivors and former slave laborers living in Prague and countless other cities all over the world have had little if any contact with the ITS.

Although the Bad Arolsen archive contains data about inmates of the Nazis’ various genocide centers, Tomas Radil, a Czech citizen who was interned in Auschwitz, told a Czech journalist he knows nothing about it.

The Czech Republic’s wartime internees have been applying to the Czech-German Future Fund for compensation. The fund cooperates with the ITS, requiring that applicants comply with Bad Arolsen’s regulations.

The regulations require the applicants to provide documents issued by the wartime German Labor Office or former employers, insurance companies, photographs, letters and postcards with “readable address, signatures and postage stamps.” The latter are deemed “direct evidence.”

If this material is not readily available, the survivors must write a detailed description of the place where they were held and submit confirmation from at least one other person.

Jack Terry, a retired psychiatrist who lives in New York, wrote to the ITS 10 years ago to find out what happened to his father, Chaim Szabmacher, who was deported to Poland’s Maidanek death camp in 1942.

“I wanted to know what information was available about his fate,” Mr. Terry said. “Nothing happened for years; and then, in 2004, I received a very brief note saying, he ‘died’ in 1943. I had given up on ever getting a response because, by then, several years had passed since my letter was sent to the ITS.”

Mr. Terry, whose original name was Jakob Szabmacher, was a teenage inmate of Nazi Germany’s Flossenburg concentration camp when it was liberated by the U.S. Army in 1945. He is the only member of his Polish-Jewish family who survived the Nazi occupation.

Personal access to the ITS’ office and archive here has been strictly limited for the past 50 years. Only bona fide survivors or relatives who were granted power of attorney by them were admitted. Researchers and journalists were barred.

This situation may change soon. In May, the 11 nations that govern the ITS, including the United States, met in Luxembourg and voted to amend the treaty on the archive to open it to researchers.

However, it may be too early and unrealistic to declare that the barriers are about to be lifted. The amendment must be ratified by each of the governments — a process originally expected to last four months, but which Mr. Pfanner expects to last much longer.

Mr. Pfanner noted that a “signature ceremony” was scheduled to take place July 27, but has been “delayed.”

Italy and Belgium are among the countries that have reservations. They do not want information about suspected collaborators and informers to be made available. Germany, which covers the ITS budget, has strict privacy laws and, therefore, opposes the release of documents that could incriminate its citizens. Like Israel, which is one of the governing countries, it is wary of evidence that could implicate Jewish survivors known in the Holocaust jargon as “kapos,” (concentration-camp police), some of whom may be suspected of having killed other Jews by order of their Nazi captors. Israel has conducted trials of these self-tormented and embittered individuals only to incur its public’s disgust.

Above all, the effort to digitalize the ITS lore is very slow and costly. The German government is covering the cost, but with only 400 persons on its multinational staff, it will take at least eight more years to complete. It took the past eight years to digitalize nearly 60 percent of the archive’s contents.

One restriction is certain to be imposed: The data will not be made available on the Internet. Another is that the general public will not be admitted to the ITS facilities here.

As for the researchers expected to converge on Bad Arolsen, Mr. Pfanner said, the International Committee of the Red Cross will not take responsibility for the outcome of their research — a principle that the ICRC applies to its own Holocaust archive in Switzerland.

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