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Bad Arolsen Archive Conflict

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Some Survivor Groups Talk of Confronting Shapiro at USHMM Closed Door Briefing

January 16th 2008

World Citizens - Paul Shapiro headshot
Paul Shapiro

Several angry, independent Holocaust survivor groups are planning to confront United States Holocaust Memorial Museum point man Paul Shapiro tomorrow January 17, 2008 to demand answers to long festering questions over controversial plans by the USHMM to sequester the Bad Arolsen databases to Museum property. The occasion will be a joint Red Cross-USHMM briefing for Holocaust survivors on the question.

 

Thousands of frail, aging survivors eager to access their files, live far from Washington in New York, South Florida, Southern California and elsewhere in the United States. For them, travel is difficult and expensive. Since many of the complex data searches of Bad Arolsen files will require the physical presence of the survivor, this will in essence place the precious records of their own enslavement beyond their geographic reach. Survivors say they prefer to have local specialists and helpers from Jewish federations, Jewish Community Centers, Holocaust centers and academic institutions help them remotely access the files.

 

Some survivor groups say they no longer believe the USHMM’s explanations. One member who plans to travel to Washington called the event “another dog and pony show” on the subject. Another, fearing the type of subtle communal reprisals Museum stalwarts have been able to arrange for their critics, asserted on condition of anonymity, “I am ready to say goodbye to all these people. Intimidation is nothing new to the Museum.”

 

For more than a year, the USHMM claimed the electronic Bad Arolsen archive, encompassing images of some 17 million pages of Nazi documentation, could not be widely shared via secure Internet-accessible database the way other historical or governmental databases are routinely accessed because a secret, eleven-nation transfer “treaty” specifically prohibited more than one institution in each country from possessing the files. The so-called “treaty,” the Museum claimed, required the ratification of eleven legislatures including the United States. The Museum argued passionately that international law itself prohibited sharing the documents, which have been the basis for a grandiose fundraising campaign by the USHMM.

 

Investigation revealed the treaty never existed.

 

A State Department official long involved with the Bad Arolsen transfer scoffed at the idea of a “treaty,” which would have required ratification by the U.S. Congress. He declared “This matter hardly rises to the level of a treaty, just a simple international agreement.” As to the “agreement,” a Bad Arolsen official admitted that the “Museum and no one else” was driving the terms of the entire transfer agreement down to the small details. For example, Red Cross sources say, it was the Museum that insisted on bizarre language in the agreement text that ensured it was the only repository in the United States to have access and that the files would be kept off the Internet or even a secure database accessible by other Holocaust museums and memorials across America.

 

Moreover, an ITS source explained, the working intergovernmental agreement could be changed any time the Museum wanted. An example was when the Museum decided last year that it wanted to accelerate a partial transfer of the database files before the entire image file was assembled allowing its software developers to create a proprietary system that no other institution could access. The 11-nation operating agreement was quickly amended to permit a so-called “embargoed” copy which could be transferred to the USHMM but not publicly available while Museum software engineers created a locked system. No foreign legislatures were involved or no problems with international law were claimed.

 

Now, survivors are determined to find out exactly who originally engineered the bizarre text in the final international operating agreement that specified that a single institution could have possession of the documents, and what the Museum did to counter this unprecedented text. For months during the controversy, critics claim, the USHMM has avoided answering this question by intimidation tactics, misrepresentation and media manipulation. For example, after a summer briefing for survivors on the subject, the National Organization of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS) newsletter asserted, “Were the Museum's officials straightforward and sincere? We certainly hope so but are taking a ‘Wait-and-See’ approach, before considering a follow-up course of action.  Regrettably, the Survivor community has, in the past, been repeatedly deceived by organizations who claimed to have our interests at heart.” A prominent, Jewish weekly newspaper editor was “ordered” by a leading fundraiser in the community to print a rejected editorial by USHMM executive director Sara Bloomfield advocating the Museum’s plan; the editor said the experience was “one of the worst days of his professional life.”

 

Later, NAHOS concluded in its newsletter that the USHMM plans will “create intolerable bottlenecks and sufferings.” In a recent Cutting Edge News Poll, 97% of respondents voted that they do not trust Museum officials to tell the truth.

 

To counter unexpected questions from the media, Museum officials have ordered the general media, other than selected survivor newsletter editors, excluded from the January 17, 2008 briefing. The legality of selective media exclusion on federal property was unclear. The International Committee of the Red Cross reluctantly agreed to the media exclusion even though it is a joint presentation, and such media exclusions violate the Red Cross’s established policy of media openness. The Red Cross, previously demonized on the subject by the USHMM’s Shapiro and other Museum officials, has in fact been at the forefront in efforts to make its Bad Arolsen files available. The Red Cross initially proposed shortcutting the entire digital transfer process by simply making its own files available via secure Internet. But its efforts were rebuffed by Museum officials.

 

In the meantime, support is welling to allow remote access by the public. Abraham Foxman, national director, has become the first national communal figure to individually endorse the idea. “I am in favor of remote access to the Bad Arolsen files for Holocaust survivors,” he told The Cutting Edge News in an interview. Numerous institutions have expressed an interest in allowing terminals on their property. These include the Detroit Holocaust Museum, academic Holocaust centers at Nova Southeastern University and Florida Atlantic University, both in South Florida, the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum, the American University of Judaism and the Detroit Holocaust Museum, the nation’s largest.

 

In response to a question on the topic, a Yad Vashem spokesperson stated, "Yad Vashem is investing immense efforts to integrate the ITS materials into its computer systems in order to eventually make them available to the public in a user-friendly manner. Yad Vashem's goal in the long-run is to make as much as possible from its archive available to the public and also via the Internet and we hope--even though it is complicated-- that this will include the ITS files.”

 

Senior Museum officials including Andrew Hollinger, Paul Shapiro, Arthur Berger and its director, Sara Bloomfield, refused to discuss the matter despite numerous calls and emails asking for comment.


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