The International Tracing Service, set up after World War II to help survivors of Nazi Germany find their families, is being turned into a historical archive that will help convey the scale and the suffering of the Holocaust to coming generations. Its vast vault of files is still helping to reunite survivors -- and has just given Wilhelm Thiem his identity back. Wilhelm Thiem was two years old when an SS man pulled him from his mother's arms. It was in , and she was sent from their home in Lodz, in occupied Poland, to become a forced laborer in Germany.
The documents are one of the world's largest collections of Nazi-era papers, and include files on more than 17 million people. The archive is kept at Bad Arolsen in Germany by the International Tracing Service ITS , a branch of the international committee of the Red Cross established to help families find out what happened to their relatives. The German government and ITS insist the personal files cannot be released immediately because of international agreements and German privacy law. But they are under pressure from the US government and Holocaust scholars to make them available. Last year 20 countries, including Britain, published a joint statement backing the US position and calling for the "urgent" release of Bad Arolsen documents to researchers. One senior American researcher has called the refusal to open the archive "a form of Holocaust denial". The sensitive nature of the material is not in dispute.
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The treasure of documents could open new avenues of study into the inner workings of Nazi persecution from the exploitation of slave labor to the conduct of medical experiments. The files entrusted to the International Tracing Service, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, have been used until now to help find missing persons or document atrocities to support compensation claims. The U. Few outsiders were allowed to see the actual documents, which number more than 50 million pages and cover 16 linear miles of gray metal filing cabinets and cardboard binders spread over six buildings. On Wednesday, the Red Cross and the German government announced that the last of the 11 countries that govern the archive had ratified a agreement to open the files to the public for the first time.