Opening of Nazi archive vault will shed light
Sonia Weitz, who survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and three other Nazi concentration camps, knew her father died in a "very horrific camp" in Austria.
"It was also the last camp I was in. We were liberated by the Americans in May, and he was killed in March. But knowing something and seeing something are very different things," said Weitz, who lived in Poland when she was "incarcerated" at age 11.
Weitz, who now lives in Peabody, is the education director of The Holocaust Center, Boston North Inc. (in Peabody) and serves on the Council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Weitz, who lost 84 members of her family during the Holocaust, said she knows there is no way she can trace them all. But she has been on a mission to find a photograph of her father, and more information about her mother.
"I managed to once find a photograph of my mother - someone who escaped to the Soviet Union was nice enough to give it to me, but I was never able to recover a photograph of my father," Weitz said.
Instead, she received a copy of his death certificate from the massive Nazi archive vault opened in Bad Arolsen, Germany last Wednesday.
"I was looking for a photograph, and somehow this got through. It was not at all shocking, because I knew when he was killed and how he was killed. But it's very difficult to look at it and to see the numbers," said Weitz, her voice quavering.
"It's a very traumatic thing to see these kinds of documents. I hope the survivors who go to the (U.S. Holocaust Memorial) Museum, I hope they are prepared for it," she said.
In addition to helping survivors like Weitz trace their families, the unsealing of the Nazi archives in Bad Arolsen for the public on Nov. 28 will enable detailed research in myriad areas of the Holocaust, such as the transport of prisoners, the camp populations, and the health of forced laborers. The records are also likely to show Nazi collaborators, including major companies and countries, said Weitz and Wayland resident John Michalczyk, a documentary filmmaker who has produced several films on the Holocaust and is a fine arts professor at Boston College.
The Nazis kept meticulous records of their crimes, and after the war, their data from the concentration camps were brought to Bad Arolsen and kept under the care of the International Tracing Service (ITS), an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to a press release issued by the ITS.
"I'm not sure why (Nazis kept such extensive records), except perhaps to prove to the world how they were cleaning that part of the world of unwanted elements like Jews and Gypsies," Weitz said.
The documents in the Bad Arolsen vault include records of orders - not just information regarding the victims and Nazis who personally murdered them, Weitz said.
"Most people don't realize that the killers documented practically all of their crimes. This proves a lot of the killings. It's about time," Weitz said. Such archival data gives people a bigger picture of the events of the Holocaust, "things we took for granted or that we'd never know about," said Michalczyk.
For instance, people will learn more about the Nazis' collaboration with Switzerland, other countries, and businessmen, Michalczyk said. More light will be shed on the persecution of religious groups: clergy from Poland and Germany who spoke out, he said.
"Archival materials are important because they're the firsthand witnesses to what was happening at that specific moment. They're not colored by different interpretations later on," Michalcyzk said.
The archives provide records about "bystanders," as well, Weitz noted.
"Somebody did all the registering and scheduling of the trains that took us to our deaths. There were lots and lots of bystanders," Weitz said.
The archives in Bad Arolsen have been inaccessible to the public for 60 years, but German justice minister Briggitte Zypries ordered them unsealed last year, which an 11-nation accord then had to approve.
Why officials and the 11 nations took so long to open the vault is unclear, Weitz said, adding that she had a sense of the reason.
"Perhaps it is because there are going to be a lot of bystanders with famous names involved - big, big, companies that are very well known - big industrial and scientific companies that worked with the Nazis. I don't think they want to be exposed, even after 60 years," Weitz said.
Making the information available to the public will help historians, survivors, and the public better understand the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated against six million Jews as well as Slavs, homosexuals, communists, the disabled, and others, and help prevent other genocides, said Andrew H. Tarsy, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
"Unless we can learn from that history, we're in deep trouble, and we are. If we did learn, Darfur wouldn't be happening, and Rwanda wouldn't have happened. Genocide is ... unthinkable," said Weitz.
Most of the archives are expected to be available on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Web site, www.ushmm.org, by Jan. 8, Weitz said.
(Joyce Kelly can be reached at 508-626-4423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)