WASHINGTON — From Adolf Hitler down to the petty bureaucrats who staffed the Nazi death camps, thousands of perpetrators of World War II war crimes were eventually written up in vast reams of investigative files — files that now, for the first time, can be viewed in their entirety by the public.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has obtained a full copy of the U.N. War Crimes Commission archive that has largely been locked away for the past 70 years under restricted access at the United Nations. On Thursday, the museum announced it has made the entire digital archive freely available to visitors in its research room.
Although information in the documents has long been known to investigators and historians, the public was kept out. Even researchers at the U.N. must petition for access through their governments.
Many of those named in the archive were never held accountable.
In addition to the allegations of mass murder against Hitler and his high-level henchmen, the files list thousands of obscure but no less horrendous cases from across Europe and Asia. There is Franz Angerer, a member of the Gestapo, accused of rounding up inmates in Sosnowiec, Poland, to send to Auschwitz.
Helmut Steinmetz in Warsaw, Poland, was accused of murdering a crippled Jewish man he met on the street, as well as killing a railroad porter with a stick for refusing to carry his luggage.
And Elimar Luder Precht, who served as chief dentist at several concentration camps, was accused of selecting Auschwitz inmates for execution based on whether they had gold or platinum teeth that could be forcibly taken.
The vast collection includes about 500,000 digitized microfilm images with more than 10,000 case files in multiple languages from Europe and Asia on people identified as war criminals. There are also meeting minutes, trial transcripts and 37,000 names listed in a central registry of war criminals and suspects. Some files have lists of personnel at concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Ravensbruck.
While some case files are brief, others are more extensive collections of charging documents, witness statements, correspondence and commission reports. The evidence was submitted by 17 member nations for evaluation to try to assure that war criminals would be arrested and tried, but the war crimes commission was shut down in 1948.
Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, noted that Cold War politics prevented many war crimes suspects from being prosecuted.
“Most Holocaust perpetrators were never held accountable before the law,” he said. “Many of them were recruited by various governments for work during the Cold War. I don’t want to say only by Western governments, because Soviets also recruited scientists and others.”
Making the records public fosters a degree of belated accountability, he said.
“By enabling people today to study and educate based on records like those of the U.N. War Crimes Commission, we can at least hold those people who committed such atrocities … to account before history,” Shapiro said. “They’re not alive anymore, but what they did shouldn’t be forgotten. We need to learn from what happened in that era.”
For decades, the archive was largely forgotten. In 1987, researchers and historians were granted limited access, but names of witnesses and suspects not convicted of war crimes were kept off limits. Prosecutors and historians with the U.S. Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit have used the archive for investigations, as have others in an on-and-off effort to hold Holocaust perpetrators accountable.
The Associated Press reviewed some of the newly accessible records, including a few with links to modern-day denials of responsibility for the Holocaust.
They include charges of mass killings by former Hungarian autocrat Miklos Horthy, who today is being memorialized with statues in Hungary amid rising anti-Semitism.
Horthy, the longtime Hungarian leader, was cited as a head of state in a charging document for leading an unprovoked attack against Yugoslavia in 1941 while Hungary was allied with the Nazis, leading to “massacres, murders and torture.” The charging document from Yugoslavia says Horthy was specifically notified of atrocities by a Hungarian lawmaker in 1942, but the incidents continued.
“The Hungarian authorities at once began to send masses of the Serbian population and Jews to concentration camps,” according to the account. “In April 1944, Jews from this region of Yugoslavia were rounded up and handed over to the German Gestapo and SS troops. The great majority of these Jews died or were killed at the death camps.”
A separate, more extensive charge file from Yugoslavia accused Hungarian leaders of massacring Serbians and Jews in Novi-Sad and other areas of the Balkans. In the Novi-Sad case in January 1942, the document described how a committee of Hungarians and Germans drew up lists to decide which Serbians and Jews should be killed. Those sentenced to death were lined up in groups of 100 to 150 people along the Danube River, stripped of their clothes in cold temperatures and executed with rifles or bayonets.
“Among the victims were a great number of children, even babies, whose mothers held them firmly to their breasts in the hope of protecting them from death and from the cold,” the charging document stated. “It was a scene of horror, ringing with the screams of the mothers and the victims.”
Museum officials said the Hungarian files demonstrate the widespread nature of the Holocaust.
“There is this normal reflex of an average human being who knows something about the Holocaust to think immediately about Germany and about death camps from occupied Poland … when in fact this was a European-wide slaughter in which many, many administrations participated,” said Radu Ioanid, director of the museum’s international archival program that is working to build the most comprehensive collection of Holocaust perpetrator records.
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