Paul Shapiro: Mission Impossible, Accomplished
By working to make the ITS files at Bad Arolsen public, Paul Shapiro is midwife to history.
By Jeanette Friedman
Holocaust survivors and their descendants went to Washington in October 2007 to learn about the International Tracing Service (ITS), a long-closed archive housed in Bad Arolsen, Germany, that is finally being made available to Holocaust survivors, their families and researchers. Since 1945, Holocaust documentation has been gathered from around the world and stored at ITS, which is overseen today by an 11-nation governing board—the ITS International Commission. Placed under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1955, the files include Nazi war records and displaced persons camp records that contain information on the fates of at least 17 million people victimized or displaced by the Nazis. The records have been tapped to implement postwar restitution and forced labor compensation settlements between survivors and the governments of perpetrator states, but the full extent of the archives was never made public.
For decades, survivors and their descendants requested information from the ITS in order to determine what happened to family members during the war. They often waited years for a response and when they did receive something, in many instances the information was incorrect or incomplete. Survivors were left wondering if they had been told the whole story, and had no way to find out. The backlog of inquiries grew until by 2001/2002 there were over 400,000 of them. All attempts to gain direct access to the files were rebuffed. Protests grew, and with restitution and reparation application deadlines running out, with survivors dying in ever increasing numbers, access to the files became critical.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, joined later by the U.S. Department of State, began a campaign to secure agreement from the 11 countries on the ITS governing board—the ITS International Commission—to make the files public. The final steps in what became a complicated and heated diplomatic process were completed in November 2007. As part of the agreement, digital copies of the entire archive are being delivered to the museum in Washington and to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The first installment of 17.8 million digital document images was received in August 2007. A 50-million-card name file followed in November. The remainder will come through a series of shipments over the next three years, and by 2010, with well over 100 million digital pages in hand, the museum will have a complete copy of the archive. The museum’s mission now is to transform tens of millions of digital images (.tif and .jpg files) into searchable files (.txt, .doc or .pdf files), so that people can easily find the information they want. It’s a complicated process, it may take years, it involves new developing technologies, but it is happening at last.
The man who was a prime mover in getting those digitized files to Holocaust repositories was Paul Shapiro, a quiet fellow, who never really imagined himself in the role of Holocaust activist. But history has a way of shaping people and imbuing them with passion.
**Shapiro was born in Framingham, Mass, the town that put cholesterol testing on the map. Local schools were so overcrowded with baby boomers, that when his parents offered him the chance to attend Phillips Exeter Academy he grabbed it—and built a Jewish congregation there for Jewish students, who until then were required to attend church services as part of their academic training. Shapiro eventually earned Jewish students the right to attend synagogue off campus during Jewish holidays—the result of a public and sometimes vehement confrontation with school authorities.
Exeter led to Harvard.
There, Shapiro studied government and international affairs, particularly the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They were the main international focus of the day, as America’s opponents in the Cold War. His graduate work was in Eastern Europe history. What he learned above all else is that we need to understand the history of the countries we deal with or we won’t ever understand them diplomatically. There was also a side-effect.
As Shapiro put it: “Once you delve into Eastern Europe, you have to delve into Jewish history, life and culture. It is inescapable. And that brings you to the Holocaust.” And once you confront the Holocaust, as a Jew in America at that time, you had to confront the critical issue of civil rights in America. In 1964, at age 18, he gave a commencement address in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers. Evers, the NAACP’s field representative in Jackson, Mississippi, was shot dead in his driveway in June 1963. “I spoke about the Holocaust and how Jews were murdered with few hands raised to help them. I described the catastrophic consequences. Then I told the Medgar Evers story and asked students to consider what their responsibility is when such actions take place in our country and the response is silence,” Shapiro recalled.
There was dead silence in the auditorium—from parents and students. That was followed by a huge struggle between the headmaster and the board of trustees, about whether or not to publish his remarks. “That told me that there was something powerful and necessary about telling the story of the Holocaust, and that it was essential for people to understand the importance of acting when they witness discrimination, no matter if it is based on religion, race, creed or other prejudice. If we are true to our tradition as Jews, and if we are true to our traditions as Americans, we have an obligation to teach Holocaust history so people can learn from it and gain some enlightenment in the way we treat people—especially people who are different—today. What you learn is that silence empowers those perpetrating the injustice. You can extrapolate this from that: if you stand by when something has to be done, that is simply not good enough.”
When he was finished at Harvard, Columbia University sent him to Romania as a Fulbright scholar—and when his schooling was done, he went to work for the U.S. government as a researcher at United States Information Agency journal, Problems of Communism, the most important publication of its kind in its day.
There he was also asked to do some research for the Department of Justice, to bring evidence in the first successful case brought against a fascist who lied to American immigration authorities to gain entry into the United States. The man in question had unleashed a pogrom in Bucharest, Romania, in 1941. In America he had risen to become the Romanian Orthodox Archbishop of the United States, chairman of the National Council of Churches, and had even opened a session of Congress.
This took place at the time Elizabeth Holtzman, a congresswoman from Flatbush Brooklyn, was arguing for the creation of the Office of Special Investigations, now headed by Eli Rosenbaum. The case against the Romanian cleric was handled in a tiny office at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, because some politicians, including in the White House, were reluctant to address the issue.
Having gained experience working in classified Romanian Holocaust archives for the Trifa case, Shapiro began to do research for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—as a volunteer and a part-time researcher on assignment from USIA—in 1989, a few years before the museum opened its doors. It soon became clear to him that this was his passion and that he had found his true métier. In 1997, USIA loaned him to the museum for two years to help develop its Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. When the two years were up, the Museum asked him to stay. He did. The rest is history. Literally.
**Shapiro was appointed director of the Center and designed a program around a large number of research fellowships, programs for faculty who teach the Holocaust at college and universities, publications, research workshops and symposia on difficult subjects in Holocaust studies. One of the most important aspects of the Center’s work was to collect archival material relating to the Holocaust—the basis of all Holocaust research.
“In the roughly 20 years that the museum has been involved in archival collection, we’ve assembled about 40 millions pages of documents from 40 countries, forming the basis of a new generation of Holocaust research and teaching,” he told Lifestyles.
Imagine his reaction when he learned that there were more than 50 million original documents, and 50 million index cards relating to victims of Nazism at Bad Arolsen in Germany and that none of it was available for research.
“As a research scholar, that absolutely grabbed me. There’s no question. But as a human being I was overwhelmed by the tragic fact that much of the Holocaust survivor generation has passed away without knowing what happened to the loved ones they lost and fearing that once they are all gone no one will remember their names, or the names of the loved ones they lost, or the fate they suffered. I felt a moral obligation to bring into the open this massive documentation that tells the stories of millions of people who were lost, degraded or displaced. Success could offer closure to survivors who were there, and for those of us who were not, and all who come after us, the documentation would be a powerful insurance policy against forgetting. Everyone warned me that this would be a fruitless effort. But succeed or fail, I knew that I could not simply walk away from the issue.”
The ITS archives contain millions of pages of documentation covering four huge areas:
1. The concentration camp system, deportations, transports, Gestapo arrests and other forms of incarceration.
2. The forced/slave labor of millions of people, both Jews and non-Jews, who were treated not as human beings, but as assets to be used until they dropped—Arbeit macht frei —literally worked to death.
3. The fate of Holocaust survivors and other displaced persons, and how they were treated by the Nazis and the post-war victors.
4. The manner in which, since the end of the Holocaust, people who needed the information in the documents at Bad Arolsen were served by the 11 governments on the ITS International Commission and ITS’s ICRC administrators.
These ITS archives will literally double the amount of archival material at the museum, and some of the information in those 17 miles of documents will provide answers to questions we have only wondered about up to now: What did the forced and slave labor system look like at the ground level? What factors could affect the decisions made regarding concentration camp prisoners that determined their death or survival? How differentiated was the treatment of DPs by Allied authorities? How did perpetrators and war criminals obtain DP status, allowing them to avoid punishment and come to the United States? Moreover, because the documents were created at the same time and relate to all categories of victims, Jewish and not, the collection offers a powerful opportunity to make comparisons among all the persecuted groups and to learn from that.
The bottom line, says Paul, “is that the documents have multiple levels of importance. They perform a huge memorial function—to know the names and fates of those who disappeared. A memorial function that is so central in Judaism, to remember and speak the names of the departed, can then be fulfilled. But it is just as important for the families of non-Jewish victims to know what happened to those they lost.”
Shapiro also points to the moral obligation that we have to people perceived to be powerless, and that the survivors of genocide are perceived as powerless. That obligation is to tell their story, reassure them it will not be forgotten, and provide them with the information they need to come to some form of closure. Like other scholars, he sees the material as tremendously important from a scholarly research and teaching perspective as well.
Shapiro relates the archive to major problems of our own day as well. “With Holocaust denial on the rise, we have had the blessing of survivors to attest to the reality of the Holocaust. In the future, the original documents, of which there are millions at ITS, will be the truest testimonial and the most authentic witnesses. This collection also demonstrates in the most dramatic way the danger of anti-Semitism, not only for Jews, but for everyone. It is a warning of the need to confront resurgent antisemitism in our own times.”
About 25 percent of the documentation in the Bad Arolsen archives relates to Jews; the rest, to non-Jewish victims of the racial and religious hatred that is unleashed when antisemitism is allowed to become the operating principle of a society. They suffered and died as a result of antisemitism, too. The museum is committed to telling the story of all of the groups victimized by the Nazis and their collaborators. This collection will be of interest and of service to many ethnic communities in the United States that have an interest in this history, including Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, French, Belgians, and all the countries affected by World War II.
**Shapiro first became aware of the Bad Arolsen files when he went to work at the Museum. The leadership of ITS wouldn’t talk to the museum about making the resources available to scholars or anyone else. That intrigued him, and in 2001 he attended the annual meeting of the 11 governments that oversee the ITS.
Despite his plea on behalf of the dwindling survivor population, it became clear to him that neither the governments nor the ICRC had any intention to act seriously on opening the archives. Though survivors and scholars had asked for access to the files, they were repeatedly rebuffed. When the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors wrote them in 2000 and again in 2004, they didn’t bother to respond. Benjamin Meed, President of the American Gathering, threatened to rally 10,000 survivors to protest, but they ignored him and anyone else attempting to change their policies or even obtain information about the holdings. Meed, who passed away last year, never received a response to his letters.
Shapiro traveled to ITS and made repeated requests for lists of its archival holdings, all of which were rejected. But he believed that if he could show people what was in the archives, he could win them over. It had become clear that the systematic withholding of information was part of a strategy to make it impossible for the governments on the ITS board to act. ITS’s on-site leadership, the ICRC, and some members of the board itself maintained a stranglehold on the situation.
Working at the museum gave Shapiro the ability to do things others might not be able to do. Among them was assigning researchers from the museum staff to gather all the information they could possibly find about what was actually in the Bad Arolsen files—by checking the archives in the participating countries that had inventoried what they had sent, and locating in the National Archives an untouched crumbling list of the collections that had been turned over to the Red Cross by the Allied High Command in Germany in 1955. Through the great work done by the museum scholars, they also assembled information on two-thirds of the thousands of collections that had been deposited in Bad Arolsen after 1955.
Shapiro knew that making this information public and describing the situation at ITS to a community of individuals and organizations dedicated to working on the Holocaust would have a dramatic impact. He prepared a “white paper” for the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research when it met in Rome in June 2004. The Task Force is an organization of government and non-governmental organizations from 24 countries, all with a Holocaust focus.
The effect was immediate. The Task Force passed three successive unanimous resolutions over a 12-month period—the first such public resolutions in its history—demanding the immediate opening of the files. The resolutions and associated press releases impacted the governments on the ITS board. All were associated with the Task Force, and Shapiro challenged them publicly to explain a situation in one forum they were calling for the immediate opening of the files, while in another they were keeping them locked up tight.
When media attention focused on the story and diplomatic tempers began to rise, the U.S. State Department finally joined the museum’s effort to force action to open the files. Over the following 24 months, the museum was able, in partnership with the State Department, to convince all 11 governments and the ICRC to sign agreements not only to open the archives, but at the museum’s initiative, to allow each country on the ITS board to have a complete digital copy. Agreement came in 2006, and by November 2007 every country had ratified it. The transfer of digital actually began in advance of ratification, in August 2007!
**What is being transferred? Years ago, worried that the paper files that fill six buildings in Bad Arolsen might go up in smoke, ITS began scanning the documents into computer images. The resulting files are not “searchable” for key words or names because they are essentially photographs of the documents, and cannot be “read” by the computer when it is looking for specific words. Normally, software programs called optical character recognition programs can read these photographs of words, and turn them into text files automatically, but only if they have a certain uniformity of language and are clearly typed, not handwritten. Even then, even with the best software, the system isn’t foolproof. Much of the Bad Arolsen documentation is handwritten, in multiple languages, on pieces of paper of dramatically different format, quality, size and color. Many of the words even on typed documents are obscured by stamps, stains and other interference. That means that every .jpg and .tif file will have to be individually looked at, typed in and verified before it can become a searchable file. When you are dealing with tens of millions of documents, that transformation can take years.
Says Shapiro, “Time is of the essence, and survivors have already waited too long. Because software development and digitization will take time, we are reassigning staff members and bringing in new staff and volunteers to help survivors seek out the documents that relate to their families.” The museum hopes to begin responding to survivor requests for information in early January. Initially, searching the archive will require specially trained archivists using custom software to get clues about where to look for information in the actual documents. The museum will send survivors and their families copies of the documents they find. Under new leadership, ITS also is now committed to providing improved service and has agreed to provide copies of documents when it responds to inquiries.
“Finally!” Shapiro concludes. Summing up the museum’s plans, he explains, “This is a two track process. The moral drive to take care of the survivors and their families—which is an immediate need—is track one, and the train is already moving pretty fast. But we are working on improved access tools at the same time, recognizing that they will take time to develop. Over the long term, the research, teaching and memorial uses of the Bad Arolsen archives will contribute to the fulfillment of the mission of the museum, which owes so much—its very existence in fact—to the inspiration and dedication of the survivors themselves.”