By Elli Wohlgelernter
As more countries and companies open up their Holocaust
archives, what secrets still have not been uncovered?
Imagine you're a historian, and your field of expertise
is the Holocaust. You have been studying and researching
every aspect of the subject, and are intimately familiar
with the tens of thousands of books published in the past
So what's left? What secrets are out there that you
still yearn to know? As we reach the year 2000, what black
hole remains in our knowledge of this greatest tragedy of
the last century?
The Jerusalem Post put the question to a handful of the
world's preeminent Holocaust historians: If they could walk
into any archive in the world, what would they want to
know? What do we all still need to know?
Although each researcher - who include Yehuda Bauer,
Raul Hilberg, Martin Gilbert, Saul Friedlander, Michael
Berenbaum and Efraim Zuroff - has a specific sphere of
interest - a country, a company, a Jewish community - they
all agree that they would love to see the archives of the
Vatican to answer the question of the Catholic Church's
culpability in the slaughter of millions. These scholars
argue that the Church knew what was going on, and they are
consumed with finding out what the Vatican knew, when it
knew it, and what it did with the information.
"The question that really remains is what were the
internal debates in the Church at the highest level, the
level of the papacy itself," says Friedlander, professor of
history at Tel Aviv University and UCLA, and the author of
the 1964 classic, Pius XII and the Third Reich.
"We do not know on what basis the decisions of what I
would call the measure of passivity - although individual
help was given - were taken. There must have been internal
debates about this between the pope and his closest
advisers, and that to me remains one of the essential
questions, not only because of its factual importance, but
also because of the incredible moral importance of the
Bauer, director of Yad Vashem's International Center
for Holocaust Studies and author of many books, says
knowing the inner workings of the Vatican is critical to
learning how information about the mass murder reached the
"When did they reach the Vatican, by whom, and what did
these reports contain?" he asks. "I would like to know the
details about the daily or bi-daily notes that were passed
between the pope and the secretary of state of the Vatican,
the discussions that were held in the Vatican between the
secretary of state and some of the main cardinals who dealt
with Vatican's policy, what they thought, how they decided
to react, what they decided to present to the pope and what
they decided not to present to the pope and how the pope
reacted - in other words, the way that any government acts.
This is crucial."
Berenbaum, former director of the Research Institute at
the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and now head of Steven
Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, says the archives in Rome are
essential because the Church must have known early on what
"The Vatican had the largest intelligence network in
all of Europe," Berenbaum says. "We don't ordinarily think
of it as an intelligence network, but it had priests who
heard confessions and reported through a neutral ambassador
to the Vatican in virtually every place where the Holocaust
was taking place. The inner reasoning and the memos should
Not only priests, but papal nuncios stationed all over
Europe were collecting information and sending it back to
Rome, according to Nazi-hunter Zuroff, director of the
Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
"To what extent did these papal representatives have
contact and input with local rulers in Catholic countries?"
asks Zuroff, author of the forthcoming book, American
Orthodoxy and the Holocaust: The History of the Vaad ha-
Hatzala Rescue Committee.
"Slovakia was a Catholic country headed by a priest -
to what extent did the papal nuncio get instructions from
Rome to go speak to him and say, 'No, don't do this'
[assist in the murder of Jews]. Some of this is known, a
lot of it is not."
Moreover, says Zuroff, after the war, when Nazi war
criminals fled Europe, "Catholic priests were out there
providing help to escaped Nazis, including the most
important ones - Eichmann, Stangl, Mengele. Priests were
involved, [and] we don't know to what extent the Church
knew about it. A very important question, a very
The issue of exploring closed archives has been a major
focus over the past few years, as the 50-year statute of
limitations ends in some countries, allowing many
previously closed archives to open. The probe of Swiss
banks and insurance policies has also forced more countries
and companies to search their own records and archives for
Last March, the Vatican's Commission for Religious
Relations with Jews issued a 14-page document, "We
Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah." The Vatican described
the paper as an "act of repentance" for the failure of
Roman Catholics to deter the mass killing of Europe's Jews,
but it was heavily criticized for skirting the issue of the
Vatican's long silences during the Nazis' reign of terror.
Then in November, Bobby Brown, the prime minister's
adviser on Diaspora affairs, published a so-called "dirty
list" of more than a dozen international organizations,
both public and private, which Israel said are withholding
information on Holocaust victims and other related
"These are archives which create conditions that stop
Holocaust investigative scholars, researchers and plain
Jews searching for the truth from getting the information
contained within them," Brown said then. "We, as the Jewish
people, have the right to know everything that happened.
There are no more secrets. We call on all archives -
national, corporate, private, organizations - that contain
information about this period to open up."
The historians queried by the Post all cited problem
areas where access has been difficult, but agreed that
there is more access now than ever before.
"There are certain gaps, the Czech Republic is one of
them," says Hilberg, McCullough professor of political
science at the University of Vermont, and author of the
1961 seminal work, The Destruction of the European Jews.
"There are some others - Croatia, Serbia, Belgrade - but I
don't know how long this impasse in one place or another
"I think we are now on the brink of seeing - not all,
but a very substantial number of the documents that were
hidden from us. Eventually the French will come out - it
might take another 10 years in France - I don't know how
long it will take on Bohemia/Moravia, the Czech Republic.
Czech is seemingly still a holdout, giving us difficulty,
probably because they want to disguise the fact that they
collaborated quite a lot.
"There are [also] difficulties in Germany, because of
the law against releasing items with names of people that
are not notorious or well known. That's a problem."
A similar obstacle exists in the American archives,
according to Bauer, where files contain a large number of
documents with sections blacked out, either because of
security considerations or because the archivist wants to
protect private individuals.
"You don't know if these considerations or judgments
are valid or not," Bauer says. "Sometimes when you talk to
archivists, their concerns are actually quite logical and
quite sensible. Although in principle you are in favor of
opening all archives, sometimes you have to admit that this
could violate the privacy of those [private] individuals,
who are still alive from those years, or their immediate
"One has to examine each individual case, and as a
historian you can't do that. That's the job of the
archivist, and that's the reason archivists and historians
are very often at loggerheads with each other."
Bauer admitted that the issue is very complicated, but
says the premise should first be that all archives must be
opened. "Then, after everyone agrees that that should be
so, you can then say, 'Look, if you have somebody [who is
not an accomplice] who is mentioned in a derogatory way in
a document, and he or she is still alive, or their sons or
daughters are around and you know where they are, then
there may be a case for this particular document to have a
section blacked out."
Friedlander cautioned patience on exploring more
archives. He says that in his recent research into Swiss
activity during the war, as well as activity by German
companies, he discovered "underground relations in the
economic field and others, that I had no notion of before,
that were really unknown in many ways. So, by now, we may
be sure that what exists will steadily and surely open
within the next years, with the exception of the Vatican
archives which will remain closed on principle unless there
is a real change of mind.
"While the Czech archives are partly closed today, the
very pressure of historical inquiry will open them in the
near future. We really have made considerable progress, and
there is no reason why this progress should stop."
Surprisingly, archives are still sealed in Jewish
organizations as well.
"We have maybe 12 Jewish organizations [that kept
records during the war], and half of them probably have not
yet opened their archives," says Hilberg from his home in
Vermont. "But we have a lot of them - we do have some of
the files from the Jewish labor organizations and we do
have some of the Orthodox files, but there are many
As more sealed archives open up, more and more
knowledge is being uncovered that touches on areas that
were heretofore unknown, some of them of major importance.
"For instance, in the last couple of years the question
of archives of banks, major corporations - we never thought
of that before," says Bauer. "And if we did, we thought
this was priority number 15. Now it turns out that we do
need these archives - some of them are open and available,
some of them are partly available, and some are not
available at all. It differs with each company, and in the
same country you may find completely different attitudes to
this by different groups, different companies."
Berenbaum, most recently the co-editor of Anatomy of
the Auschwitz Death Camp, says that there is much to learn
from going through the records of major corporations that
established businesses adjacent to concentration camps.
"Volkswagen just did a very good study of their own
corporate records, and that was the most honest corporate
study that has been done in Germany, but we would need to
do that corporation after corporation after corporation.
"I'd also like to see a companion study of the American
corporations that were in Germany during this period of
time. Questions were just raised about General Motors and
Ford - I'd like to see those records. I'm an empiricist, so
I'm not making charges, I'm merely saying I'd like to see
the records that show the relationship between American
corporations and German corporations, and the moment at
which they were severed."
Sir Martin Gilbert, author of one of the major
compendiums of the Shoah, The Holocaust - A History of the
Jews of Europe During the Second World War, says while
there is a place for inquiries into the archives of
countries and corporations, but he would prefer to focus on
"I'd like a thousand times more material on Jewish acts
of defiance - in the ghettos, in the deportation trains, in
the camps. That is the great missing archive... . We are so
intent now on flagellating the British, the Americans, the
Vatican, the Swiss, the Swedes, the German banks, [that] we
forget our own strengths. We forget our own incredible
inner courage at that time. We're seeking enemies, and
we're getting further and further away from our own
extraordinary accomplishments under the most terrifying of
"The more you attack a German bank - which I agree has
to be done, I don't belittle those who do it - but with
every frontal assault on a German bank, we are somehow
undermining what we ourselves managed to achieve: the
courage within the ghettos, the maintenance of the
educational systems, the struggle for life even when it was
clear that it was pretty well a hopeless struggle.
"That, I suppose, was the great lesson of the Warsaw
Ghetto revolt - if it had been discussed at a chief-of-
staff meeting in Washington or London, they would have said
it's hopeless, don't do it. But our people had a different
perspective, and I think it's evidence of that perspective,
this incredible desire, imperative, to record what is
happening - you know, the mother who urges her son to
somehow survive, to get away, to escape, to run away, in
order to pass on the story... . This element of inner
strength - the Jewish determination to survive - is so
strong that in a way it is the great missing archival
Gilbert says getting the information on acts of Jewish
defiance requires searching through local archives for
material gathered throughout Europe by villagers who may
have recorded what they saw.
"You might be talking about a Ukrainian's diary which
ostensibly has no relevance to the Holocaust," says
Gilbert, from his home in London. "But who knows, if you go
to [a small village], and you find some local material
tucked away, hidden away, you might get those crucial
"You have to go and find it, and you have to persuade
these people to open their archives."
And then there are archives that may or may not exist,
but which top every historian's wish list. Both Friedlander
and Zuroff mentioned the bureaucratic files of the Gestapo,
which certainly existed at one time but are believed to
have been destroyed.
"The thing that everyone wants to see, but I don't
think exists, are the SS archives," says Zuroff. "They were
destroyed by the Germans at the end of the war. Especially
[interesting would be] the files from the Reich Security
Main office, the RSHA, the agency that implemented the
Holocaust. The enormity of the documentation there, and its
importance from an historical point of view, is obvious."
Friedlander says that while finding the files would be
of great importance, "I do not know whether they have been
destroyed. But if they [are being] kept somewhere, then
this would be of immense importance because it would
obviously reflect all the innermost decision-making process
of the Final Solution. The holy grail of Holocaust inquiry
is Adolf Hitler, while every aspect of his life and mind
has been written about, there remains the elusive question:
Did the FŸhrer ever give a specific order in writing to
carry out the 'Final Solution?' "
"I frankly don't know how much more one can discover
about Hitler," says Hilberg, "because we've followed every
year of his life. Some of it is of course lost, but still
there are books about his health, his Vienna years, Linz,
the '20s, the '30s, his stocks in Mercedes Benz - you name
Friedlander says that no one will discover the makeup
of Hitler's personality and the origins of his hatred of
the Jews through archives. It is a matter of conjecture and
will remain so, he says.
"We have debated endlessly the measure of his direct
involvement, and the orders, mainly the orders," he says
from his UCLA office. "By now I think one can piece the
picture together pretty well - recent German documents
found in the Moscow archives give a pretty clear picture of
when his instructions were given to Himmler, and we can
more or less piece together the course of his direct
intervention in the process."
Gilbert says even if there is no written statement,
"Hitler talked about it all the time - day after day after
day, he talked and discussed the need to murder the Jews."
Berenbaum says he's interested in seeing all the
documents that came out of Hitler's office, "because we've
all been looking for the document, if there was a document
in writing, in which he ordered the 'Final Solution.' My
assumption is that it existed as a mind-set - 'I have it on
highest orders directly from the FŸhrer.' I don't think
there is a written order."
Bauer is certain that such an order does not exist, and
"There cannot be one - Hitler would never have done
that," Bauer says. "He didn't have to. All he had to do was
to agree to proposals that were put before him, or to
radicalize proposals that were put before him. It was
sufficient that he said, 'OK.' He was a radicalizing
factor, so when they put things before him he said, 'Well,
why don't you do it more radically than you suggested?'
"He didn't deal in details, he probably never bothered
about how the Jews were killed in Auschwitz or in Sobibor,
he had no interest in that as long as it was done. An order
by Hitler would be totally impossible, in my view. He made
general statements that were taken as law, and he knew
exactly what was happening because he received detailed
So if Hitler's holy grail will elude us forever, then
perhaps enough pressure can be brought to bear on breaking
the last big Holocaust riddle: What did the Vatican know,
and when, and what were they thinking?
Hilberg says it's not likely that historians will find
the answers soon.
"The Vatican has still not released the inquisition of
Galileo, so don't hold your breath, it might take a little
longer," he says.
© Jerusalem Post 1999