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Survivors Outraged at Holocaust Museum over Bad Arolsen

Holocaust survivors from coast to coast have exploded with unprecedented public vitriol against the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum generally, as well and its plans to prohibit immediate offsite electronic access to the secret records of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen.

Many in the Holocaust and second generation community have long harbored quiet seething resentment against the Museum’s aggressive fund-raising tactics, denial of Sephardic victimization, refusal to recognize the role of the Mufti of Jerusalem and Arab leadership in the Nazi axis, alleged failure to address the widespread poverty of elderly survivors, and the Museum’s long-standing taboo against acknowledging American corporate involvement in the Holocaust. But the issue of prohibiting immediate remote access to the Bad Arolsen documentation, the way other government documents are routinely accessed, brought many in the Holocaust community to publicly express networked anger in a way never before seen.

One prominent leader of a Holocaust organization unabashedly verbalized his upset. “Where does the Museum get the chutzpah,” asked an angered David Schaecter, president of the Miami-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation. He singled out the Museum’s point man for the Bad Arolsen transfer, Paul Shapiro, director of its Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

“I don’t know how in the name of the G-d, Shapiro can look at himself in the mirror, especially after his testimony before the House [of Representatives].” Schaecter recently sat next to Shapiro as they both testified about the need to bring the Bad Arolsen documents to America. But Schaecter felt Shapiro was outlining a program that would take years to implement “while survivors are dying every day, funerals every week.”

Shapiro did not respond to calls seeking comment. Arthur Berger, a senior adviser to the museum on external affairs, defended him. “Paul Shapiro has probably done more than any individual in the world to get this archive opened," Berger said. "He has literally worked day and night to fulfill our moral responsibility to help survivors get information and not allow them to pass away without finding out more information about themselves and their families.”

In commenting on the Bad Arolsen controversy, Klara Firestone, founding president of Second Generation Los Angeles, and a member of the coordinating council of the Generations of the Shoah International, added, “After recent dealings with the Museum, it is more and more evident that they are not committed to the survivors in whose name this museum was built.” She added that the current Museum executives “have lost their sight, and lost the soul of the Museum.”

Bad Arolsen Stacks

In an era of the instant access offered by Google, Yahoo, Proquest and Lexis-Nexis, Holocaust survivors and leaders cannot understand why the United States government cannot make the documents available to every local library or home computer the way government documents are ordinarily accessed.

On May 9, one representative of several survivors groups sent a note to Congressional staffers who work on committees considering the Museum’s quest to secure sole control of the Bad Arolsen archive, declaring, “The consensus – from survivors as well as community leaders -- is that something is definitely amiss here. The Museum seems to be constructing an access protocol based on a continuing sensitivity to European privacy concerns and probably in a way that masks individual company involvement in slave labor system. By no means...will this be made internet-accessible.”

Firestone agreed, adding, “After 60 years of concealing and hiding, when they open this archive, if it does not give immediate—I mean immediate—and instant remote access to everyone it will be just another blow to the [Holocaust] community.” Ironically, the existing search mechanism in the Bad Arolsen archives works as fast as Google. Museum sources said they wanted to create their own proprietary search engine, accessible only from their on-site computers.

Esther Finder, president of the Maryland-based Generation After asked, “If the German government already paid to have this archive digitized, and it is already in portable hard drives, why can’t we use Bad Arolsen’s search engine. I don’t understand. It seems like another time-consuming layer of complication and expense. The Holocaust survivors want this information and they want it where they can have easy and immediate access to it. What if you don’t live in Washington?”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, formerly a member under three presidents of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, added, “I would hope that the Bad Arolsen archives could be as easily accessible as modern science makes possible. Those archives are for the survivors’ needs and use first, and scholars later.”

Some survivors assert that the Bad Arolsen transfer is just a basis for the Museum to engage in aggressive fundraising. Schaecter bristled about his recent experience. “I come back from Washington,” he recalls after I testified before the House [in March] about these archives, I am not home for 6 hours, I get a call from the Boca office of the Museum from their fundraiser, and he says ‘I heard about your testimony and I heard about you caring’—and all this nonsense! ‘Since you are deeply involved,’ he says, ‘maybe you should make a meaningful donation.’”

Schaecter resented the call and says, “But I don’t want the Bad Arolsen records in Washington. Survivors are so frail,” they cannot travel to Washington. He continued, “This would be such an unbelievable blow if the Museum gets these records. Then, for sure, there is no justice. All the Museum cares about is more billions and billions of dollars. That is their mentality.”

Firestone added, “Before more money is solicited, they owe an obligation to the survivors in whose name they built this museum. This is all a blow to the survivors who are no longer here.”

Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust survivors, who served for a decade on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, asserted, “I have great respect for Paul Shapiro. I am also convinced without the Museum and US government, we would not have the [Bad Arolsen] Archive. But the Museum is not immune to criticism or difference of opinion. I am a firm believer that all documentation and archives should be as widely accessible as humanly and technologically possible. So long as there are no longer legal impediments, I see absolutely no reason why the documents should not be made accessible on the Internet.”

The first ten million images of concentration camp documents will soon transfer to the Museum under embargo pending the releasing treaty’s full ratification. The 11-nation commission that controls the International Tracing Service initialed a May 16, 2006 treaty authorizing release. Each of those nations must ratify the treaty under their existing laws. The last four nations, France, Greece, Italy and Luxemburg, are expected to ratify late this year or early next year. Once ratified, national delegates must each sign the single, controlling copy of the treaty. Only then will the treaty be approved and implemented.

At press time, survivors were organizing protest letters to send to Congressmen and others in what one survivor called a ‘race against time to stop Shapiro” from engineering a restrictive transfer of the documents at the International Tracing Service’s annual meeting in Amsterdam May 14 and 15. “If Shapiro gets those documents from Amsterdam,” lamented Schaecter, “it will be an unbelievable disgrace.”

Museum officials repeatedly contacted refused to comment on survivor reaction. After first refusing to elaborate on the Museum’s stance, Berger issued a statement asserting, that “the museum was waiting for the material to be released before it could provide specifics of how it would make the material available. But he said the museum was committed to making the archive widely accessible.”

He continued, “The museum has been leading the effort for years to open the archives at Bad Arolsen, and we've really been working aggressively to help survivors nationwide gain access to the archives," he said. "We have done whatever is possible and we will continue to have the highest commitment to ensure that when we have the material, we will do everything in our power to get access to that information to survivors. Whatever it takes.”

However, another Museum spokesman reiterated the Museum’s stance that it will not place the files on the Internet. At first the Museum claimed the May 16, 2006 treaty itself prohibited Internet access. The Museum then reversed itself, and said treaty was silent on the Internet. Despite repeated requests, the Museum refused to disclose a copy of the 11-nation treaty, claiming it was a “secret treaty.” Congressional sources and State Department sources scoffed at this characterization. A copy of the treaty obtained by this reporter confirms there is no prohibition for any American institution placing the already digitized files on the Internet, an Intranet, or easily accessed national database.

Copyright 2007 Edwin Black
All Rights Reserved