From prison brothels to slave labor camps, 15 scholars concluded a two-week probe Thursday of an untapped repository of millions of Nazi records, and hailed it as a rich vein of raw material that will deepen the study of the Holocaust.
It was the first concentrated academic sweep of the archive administered by the International Tracing Service since it opened its doors last November to Holocaust survivors, victims' relatives and historical researchers.
German historian Christel Trouve said the nameless millions of forced laborers began to take shape as individual people as she studied small labor camps – which existed in astonishing numbers.
Among the striking revelations was the identification of the man who rescued an 8-year-old boy in Buchenwald, Israel Meir Lau, who later became Israel's chief rabbi.
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Lau had said his rescuer was a person called Fyodor. Kenneth Waltzer of Michigan State University found it was Fyodor Michajlitschenko, 18, arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, who treated the small boy like a father in Block 8 until the camp's liberation.
“A lot of us found the collections here, approached in the appropriate way, really opened up new significant scholarly lines of inquiry,” said Waltzer, who is director of the Jewish Studies department.
Jessica Anderson Hughes of Rutgers University discovered that prostitutes servicing other prisoners in concentration camp brothels often came from ordinary backgrounds – exploding the myth that most had been prostitutes before their arrest.
Hughes said the lists in Bad Arolsen allowed her to attach names to the prisoner-prostitutes at Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps which had one of eight known brothels for prisoners.
With the names she could look up incarceration records – and she found some women were married, some single, some were mothers. The records said many were arrested for minor crimes.
The research project was organized jointly by the tracing service and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which brought scholars from six countries to begin assessing the significance of the archive, the largest collection of Nazi documents.
The 50 million pages stored in this central German spa town since the mid-1950s previously had been used by Red Cross staff to respond to inquiries about missing persons or the fate of family members, and later to document compensation claims.
With the population of survivors quickly shrinking, the 11 countries that govern the archive agreed in 2006 to widen access. It took another 18 months for all 11 to ratify treaty amendments.