POLISH DEATH CAMP in The Boston Globe!!!
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POLISH DEATH CAMP in The Boston Globe!!!
Dear Friends. Another incident of historically erroneous usage of the phrase POLISH DEATH CAMP.
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By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff | May 7, 2006
(Clarification: A Page One story Sunday about records of Nazi atrocities in World War II referred to events at Polish death camps. The death camps in Poland, which was occupied by Germany during the war, were created and controlled by Nazis.)
BAD AROLSEN, Germany. The death books seem utterly ordinary, their covers inscribed with neither swastikas nor other frightening Nazi symbols. They are just the black-and-white, cardboard-covered composition books that generations of schoolchildren have used for handwriting practice. And, indeed, every entry is in neat cursive.
On April 20, 1942, the commandant of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria approved the special killing of 300 prisoners to mark the Fuehrer's birthday. The execution list runs for pages, each individual receiving a single line -- name, birthdate, place of birth, inmate number, and an epitaph, ''By order of R.S.H.A. shot," the acronym for the Central Office for Security of the Reich.
The cause of death for each was a single bullet to the base of the skull: Genickschuss -- neck shot. The executions on that spring day occurred at two-minute intervals. Every snap of the firing pin was duly noted in fussy script in the Totenbuch, or death book, for 1942-43. The birthday celebration murders started at 11:20 a.m.
11:22. Neck shot.
11:24. Neck shot
11:26. Neck shot.
Later this month, after years of pressure from Holocaust scholars, Jewish groups, and the US government, the immense terror trove at the Red Cross's International Tracing Service are expected to be opened to historians and other researchers for the first time.
''There is extraordinary material in Bad Arolsen on the functioning and structure of the camps and slave labor systems," said Johannes Houwink ten Cate, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. ''It's one of the largest collections of historical documents from World War II, enough to keep scholars busy for generations."
Perhaps most shocking about the Bad Arolsen files is the way the most horrific atrocities are detailed in ho-hum bureaucratic language.
''In the concentration camps, unlike the extermination camps, everything was carefully recorded," said Udo Jost, archive manager for the tracing section of the International Committee of the Red Cross that oversees a gigantic archive whose millions of files have for six decades been kept largely hidden from public view. The documents, captured by Allied troops and held in London before being moved to this central-west German spa town after World War II, fill some 16 miles of file drawers and shelf space behind the bland exterior walls of a former SS barracks.
The files were placed under the control of the Red Cross, responsible for tracing millions of the dead and missing from the camps and slave labor battalions. Since 1945, the organization has responded to 11.3 million queries from people in 62 countries, mainly from relatives seeking information about lost loved ones but also from survivors seeking to document their incarceration and inhumane treatment under the Nazis.
Although all Third Reich concentration camps were cruel and murderous, not all were meant for genocide. Many were designed to provide a workforce of slave laborers for industry and government projects.
In addition to tracking the dead and missing, the Red Cross has also used the files to help survivors secure pensions, medical benefits, or reparation payments by providing proof that their ''lost years" were spent in camps or labor battalions. ''These are archives of horror, yes, but also of hope," Jost said.
On May 16, the 11-nation commission that oversees the archives is expected to vote to allow researchers access to registration documents, identification cards, police interrogation sheets, concentration camp records, and all the other details of the millions of camp prisoners and slave laborers. A Globe reporter was allowed to look at files under the condition that the full names of victims not be used, in accordance with German privacy laws and Red Cross policy, meant to protect survivors and their kin.
The files have been kept off-limits to the public primarily because of Germany's assertion that access would violate the privacy of victims. Some records hold highly personal information, including medical details, criminal records, suggestions of homosexuality, and -- most controversially -- evidence of collusion between inmates and their captors. But bureaucratic bullheadedness also played a big role in restricting access: Many scholars say the Red Cross has kept records private because it doesn't want historians treading on its turf.
In any event, Germany last month abruptly dropped its longstanding opposition to granting full access to researchers -- and the Red Cross indicated that it, too, would go along. The change came after the United States intensified diplomatic pressure for openness.
The archives contain 50 million documents with the names and information on some 17.5 million people, including concentration camp inmates, forced laborers, and other victims of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.
The famous Schindler's list is part of the archives -- consisting of transport orders diverting more than 1,000 Jews from the Polish death camps to jobs at a factory operated by the courageous German businessman Oskar Schindler.
The files at Bad Arolsen provide stark details of slave laborers forced to repair German railroads under bombardment from Allies, digging tunnels to hide V-2 rockets, or working on the assembly lines of BMW, Siemens electronics, and other well-known firms. Researchers say that the opening of the records is long overdue.
''These are terrible stories from a terrible time," said Ulrich Herbert, professor of 20th-century history at Germany's University of Freiburg. ''It's frustrating and even appalling that these records have been kept off-limits to historical research for so long."
Major Holocaust archives in the United States and Israel are open for general research.
The Bad Arolsen files range from broad outlines of mass murder to sharp shards of unfathomable cruelty.
There is, for example, the terse account of the Gestapo interrogation of a 31-year-old hospital nurse named Elisabeth arrested in Koblenz.
''This woman is a half-Jew who lives [with her non-Jewish boyfriend] and acknowledges they have had sexual relations" in violation of Nazi racial purity laws, according to the two-sentence report.
She was issued a patch of a yellow triangle superimposed on dark triangle, making a Star of David, to show she was a Jewish ''race defiler." She was sent to Ravensbrueck concentration camp, disappearing into the maw of the Holocaust.
But she didn't disappear entirely: If nothing else, interrogation sheet No II-H-537 a form stashed in a long-forgotten manila folder -- gives evidence that Elisabeth was a woman who once lived, laughed, and loved.
''The files are a kind of rescue from total anonymity," Jost said. ''Her story is at least known."
As the Allies closed on Germany, SS troops often tried to obliterate damning documents. At the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in present-day Poland, for example, death lists were destroyed. But the SS saw no danger in leaving behind ''delousing" records -- scraps of pink paper that detailed how many lice were removed from the head of each prisoner.
Inmate No. 87986 in Camp Block 8, had a single louse plucked from his scalp on Jan. 14, 1945.
Decades later, seeking to prove that he had indeed been an inmate of the camp, the man turned to the Red Cross, which discovered that single mention of his name among the millions on file.
''It was enough," Jost said. ''Because one louse was found on his head, this man could prove he was a victim and may be entitled to compensation."
The Bad Arolsen records deal mainly with concentration camps and slave laborers, who were often Jews but also included citizens from every country conquered by the Third Reich.
There is the Frenchman dragooned into duty as a builder of submarine pens at a German naval base in Norway. There is a German banker from Saarbrueken, inmate No. 2265, hurled into the hell of Buchenwald in 1937 for making ''treasonous utterances" -- apparently criticisms of the Hitler regime overheard by an informant at the bank. His record shows ''25 strokes [of the lash] for laziness" in 1944 and a mouthful of ''missing teeth" after a questioning session. He survived and was freed in 1945.
There is a Russian slave laborer killed on Sept. 14, 1943, at 4:25 p.m. while ''defusing dud bombs" dropped by Allies on the center of Kalkum. There is a Jewish businessman named Aaron from the Dutch city of Rotterdam, whose records indicate good health when he was admitted to a camp in 1943, but who died weeks later of ''collapse of the heart, loss of blood circulation, fractured limbs" -- almost certainly the victim of torture. There is a woman named Katrina, from the French border region, who was arrested by the Gestapo ''for complaining she was involuntarily sterilized by authorities after giving birth to a colored bastard."
The Red Cross will continue managing the archives and also continue its mission of fleshing out the fates of Nazi victims.
''Many times, these are people who know only that they were seized by the Germans and forced to labor. They remember their inmate number, the name of their camp, but nothing else -- not even where, precisely, they had been held," Jost said.
As an example, he showed the documents of Jelena, a Ukrainian woman pressed into industrial labor in Germany in 1942.
''We were finally able to discover her details from files of a camp outside Berlin," he said. ''She worked in a factory making telephone parts for Siemens. When liberation came, she just wanted to go home. But all these years later, she is asking, 'What was it that happened to me? Where did they take me? Why did I suffer?'
''These files cannot replace stolen lives or stolen years," Jost said. ''But they can fill in some of the awful blank areas."
Petra Krischok of the Globe's Berlin bureau contributed to this report.