Nazi records detail a lucky twist of fate

Stories of life and death described to genealogists in S.L.

Published: Wednesday, July 18 2007 12:12 a.m. MDT

For more than 60 years, Micky Schwartz had no idea just how lucky he was to get a throat infection as a teenager at the Buchenwald concentration camp. The illness saved his life — an irony documented in Nazi war records that only now are being made publicly accessible.

Then a boy of 14, Schwartz's name was crossed off a list of young Hungarian Jews slated to be shipped to a Nazi weapons manufacturing plant. The camp, survivors had learned, was a virtual death sentence. Records kept by his captors show he was too sick to make the journey, according to Paul Shapiro.

Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, described Schwartz's journey through the hellish concentration camp system during the International Association for Jewish Genealogy Societies' annual meeting, being held at the Hilton City Center.

As the driving force behind efforts to gain public access to the largest closed database of World War II documents, Shapiro said records of more than 17 million people victimized by the Nazis will soon become available after a long series of diplomatic cajoling that has included representatives from 11 different countries who oversee the archive — known as the International Tracing Service, or ITS.

Digitized copies of one section of the German-held records are to arrive at the Holocaust Museum in Washington later this summer, and personnel there hope to begin searching the records for Holocaust survivors seeking information about family members before year's end.

Schwartz was one of three Jewish men whose visit to the German archive was documented late last year by a "60 Minutes" television segment describing efforts to open the ITS to the public before the last survivors of the Holocaust die. When shown the paper trail that included a line through his name on the list of prisoners to be shipped to the weapons plant, Schwartz was stunned, calling himself "Mr. Lucky."

His is one of literally millions of stories that will no doubt come to light once the ITS records are fully digitized and made searchable, a process that is now under way at the Holocaust Museum as well as other repositories around the world, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Hitler's secret archives contained roughly 50 million documents that now fill more than 16 miles of shelves, documenting some aspects of Nazi victimization for some 17 million people — one quarter of them Holocaust victims. Shapiro said people who learn of the detail contained in the records — like Schwartz's record of an infirmary stay for a throat infection — are always surprised, since Hitler's goal was to exterminate the Jews. Why keep such detailed records?

"They wanted to show they were getting the job done, and to record how well that was being done was very important," Shapiro said.

The ITS was established by Allied forces following the war in an effort to help reconnect concentration camp survivors and other displaced people with family members. Held under the auspices of the International Red Cross, the archive has continued to grow over time as records from all over Europe have been sent there to be catalogued and stored.

But as time passed and bureaucrats became more concerned about privacy and what may be found in the documents, personnel charged with keeping the collection at Bad Arolsen, Germany, had a backlog of more than 400,000 unfilled requests for information, Shapiro said.

At first, his efforts at diplomacy were quiet, as he sought to explain the urgency of allowing access to Holocaust survivors whose chances of dying before they were able to get any information about their family members continued to escalate. But repeated delays and formidable international obstacles convinced him that "going public" was the only way to make substantial headway.

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