Once again the media has given widespread coverage to the long-delayed opening of yet another important repository of Holocaust documentation.
This time it is the until-now inaccessible archives of the United Nations war crimes commission in New York, a few years ago it was the files of the International Tracing Service created by the Red Cross and housed in Arolsen, Germany, near Frankfurt.
In each case, the news generated a lot of coverage and all sorts of "scoops" based on the documents and predictions of new discoveries. Thus, for example, in response to the opening of the UN war crimes commission archives, the Jerusalem Post carried a story from The Independent which said that the Allied powers were "well aware of the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi regime at least two-and-a-half years earlier than commonly thought."
What a scandal!! Imagine what they could have done to stop the murders once they found out, think of all the lives which could have been saved.
All true, but as any Holocaust expert, or even graduate student in Holocaust studies, will tell you, this fact is not new and this information was already revealed by historians decades ago.
It is true that the liberation at the end of the war of concentration camps in Germany, such as Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen by the Western allies shocked public opinion. Yet anyone who carefully reads the press during the period following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, when the systematic annihilation of European Jewry was initiated by the Einsatzgruppen (special mobile killing units) which launched the "Holocaust of bullets" even before the mass gassings in the death camps began (in Chelmno on December 8, 1941), realises that much information on the mass murder of Jews was already public knowledge in that year.
In the summer of 1942, reports about a specific Nazi plan for the mass annihilation of all the Jews of Europe reached the West and were actually confirmed to Jewish groups by the US State Department in November 1942. Less than a month later, on December 17, 1941, a joint declaration by the members of the United Nations was issued on the mass murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was read in the British House of Commons and published in the New York Times and many other newspapers. So much for that "scoop."
Ironically, what was rarely mentioned in connection with the opening of these long-closed archives was the irreparable damage done to the efforts to track down Nazi war criminals by the fact that these archives were inaccessible for decades to practically all researchers.
The archives of the International Tracing Service are an excellent example in this regard. Until they were officially opened to the public several years ago, the only persons who could obtain any information were individuals seeking details on the fate of first-degree relatives. All other requests went unanswered.
In fact, to the best of my knowledge, although copies of the records had been deposited in 11 different countries, the only place where access to these files was available to the public was in Israel at the Yad Vashem Archives. And as it turned out, the data in the ITS was a veritable gold mine for hunting Nazis, as I learned from my own experience.
In looking for the whereabouts of a Holocaust survivor who was the source of a rumour that the American Army had arrested and released Dr Josef Mengele in late 1946, a colleague, Dr David Silberklang of Yad Vashem, suggested that I search the ITS files. I had never used them previously and was under the mistaken impression that their information was only on Jewish victims and survivors.
Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that most of the millions of persons listed were non-Jewish Displaced Persons, and that their emigration destinations and data were included on many of the entries. There were no indications on these records of any Nazi-related criminal activity, but I knew that almost all the Nazi war criminals/collaborators who fled to the Anglo-Saxon countries (US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand) after World War II had previously been in DP camps.
I realised that this collection had incredible potential to help find escaped Nazi war criminals. And indeed I was able to find the escape destinations and travel data for hundreds of suspects, which helped convince Canada (in 1987), Australia (in 1989), and Great Britain (in1991) to pass legislation to prosecute the Nazi war criminals living in those countries.
As happy as I was to be able to find this data, the fact that it was off-limits to other researchers was incredibly frustrating and to my mind totally illogical. The sad truth is that the granting of full access at this point to these collections, while positive, cannot atone for the fact that this material could have helped in the search for escaped Nazi war criminals, but was not made available for that purpose.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.