Red Cross releases 25,000 pages detailing activities in Nazi camps
Dec. 19, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Nazis agreed in March 1945 to let Red Cross aid workers visit German concentration camps to try to ensure prisoners' safety in the chaotic weeks leading to Germany's World War II defeat, newly released Red Cross records show.
Some relief workers were able to calm Nazi soldiers and moderate the horror of the camps. But the deal prevented Red Cross workers from removing prisoners, according to 25,000 pages of International Committee of the Red Cross records given Wednesday to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The documents will be available for public viewing at the museum in February 1997.
Museum researchers have examined only superficially letters, reports and other Red Cross records spanning 1939 to 1961. From dated inventories, museum officials noted that workers were in camps before Germany surrendered May 7, 1945.
``(Red Cross) representatives made it into the camps. They saw the unbelievable and recorded it and kept it in your files,'' said Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
Red Cross officials say the files ``contain numerous firsthand accounts and reports on the persecution of Jews and on political detention in general between 1939 and 1945.'' The Red Cross is the only outside organization known to have had people moving through Nazi camps during the war.
The revelations bring up old questions about whether the Red Cross did enough to prevent wartime atrocities.
``How can one be satisfied when a world perished while the other half of the world looked on,'' Lerman said, adding that the documents will show whether the Red Cross could have done more.
``It takes time to face your own history,'' said Red Cross archives director Georges Willemin.
The Holocaust museum began negotiations to acquire the records in November 1994, Lerman said, but it wasn't possible until the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross decided in January to open all records dating back more than 50 years.
Release of the documentation was not related to a Senate Banking Committee investigation, started in April, about millions of dollars that European Jews and Holocaust victims deposited in Swiss bank accounts during the war, Willemin said.
The documents' most startling revelation is that Red Cross workers visited Nazi refugee camps in Germany before liberation.
In spring 1945, Red Cross workers started taking advantage of disarray in the Nazi regime by pleading with individual concentration camp commanders to allow them access and offering relief to inmates, Willemin said. Some aid workers successfully calmed Nazi soldiers during visits that lasted about a week, preventing more killings.
But many relief workers were able to do no more than comfort prisoners while awaiting liberation, Willemin said. It was unclear whether prisoners were killed in camps where Red Cross workers were present.
By spring 1945, all the camps in Poland had been dismantled but German camps still existed.
Other issues the documents are expected to address:
_Further details about two Red Cross rescue missions during the war, which for the first time will provide the relief agency's version of what occurred. In 1944, thousands of Jewish refugees were evacuated from Hungary. And in 1945, at least 3,000 Jewish orphans were transported from eastern Ukraine and Romania on Red Cross boats.
The operations are important because the relief agency negotiated help from the Nazi-allied governments of Hungary and the former Romania, which were hoping to curry favor with Western forces winning the war. Currently, historians only have those countries' versions of the aid agreement.
_Details about the fate of refugees before and after the war.
``For me personally it's not that important to blame or not blame the Red Cross, but to find out more about the Holocaust _ what they did or not did, why things happened and how they happened,'' said Radu Ioanid, who helped negotiate the transfer of documents to the museum.