Holocaust Museum acquires copy of UN war crimes archive from WWII, will give public access

Brett Zongker / The Associated Press
July 17, 2014 05:15 AM

This photo, date unknown, provided by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, shows Jews assembled in the desecrated synagogue in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, before being transported to a concentration camp. A largely unknown archive documenting thousands of cases against World War II criminals, from Hitler to many average participants in the Holocaust who were never brought to trial, are being made public and unrestricted for the first time at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington after being locked away for decades at the United Nations. (AP Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

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.

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.

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."

There are also charges against Kurt Waldheim who served in the German army in World War II and went on to become secretary-general of the U.N. in the 1970s. Due to the secrecy surrounding the U.N. war crime records, Waldheim's Nazi connection wasn't discovered until his campaign for president of Austria, where he was elected and served from 1986 to 1992.

The accusations were never proven. Waldheim was never taken to trial and he denied any wrongdoing.

The U.S. had no jurisdiction to indict Waldheim but banned him from travelling to the United States, based in part on his documented Nazi connection and a probe that took investigators to Austria, Belgrade and elsewhere.

The archive contains detailed accusations against Hitler and other Nazi leaders.

In the files, Hitler is cited for "murder and mass murder in concentration camps," ''looting and confiscation of property," and "torture of civilians" among other offences. In 1987, Israeli officials studying the records said they found evidence Hitler had personally ordered the deaths of more than 10,000 Jewish women and children in a Latvian village, calling it the first evidence that shows Hitler's direct participation in the extermination of Jews.


Associated Press investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.

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