updated 3/7/2007 10:04:18 PM ET 2007-03-08T03:04:18

The director of a long-secret archive of Nazi records said Wednesday that preparations for allowing scholars access are moving faster than expected and the entire collection will be ready for research within a year.

But unless the 11 governing nations overcome legal hurdles, it could take years before the documents are actually released.

The United States is leading a campaign to hasten ratification of an agreement reached last year to unlock the massive storehouse kept at Bad Arolsen, Germany, to researchers.

U.S. officials said a majority of the countries were likely to complete procedures within two months. But under existing arrangements, all 11 must endorse the agreement before it can be implemented, and some require approval from their parliaments.

The governing commission of the International Tracing Service, the arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross that runs the archive, began a two-day meeting Wednesday to review the legal status.

Normally, the commission gathers once a year, but several countries requested this week’s meeting to heighten the pressure on member states that are lagging behind, mainly Belgium and Italy. The next scheduled session is set for May.

Reto Meister, the head of the Tracing Service, said he was bringing “good news”: the first collection of documents — incarceration records, death catalogs, camp registries and transportation lists — will be digitally scanned and ready for transfer to Holocaust institutions by this summer.

Up to 50 million pages soon to be released
He said 95 percent of the collection, 30 million to 50 million pages filling 16 miles of shelf space, will be ready by the end of the year.

“It’s been going even faster than anticipated,” Meister told The Associated Press. “We have been dedicating more resources to scanning the documents and integrating them into the database.”

Meister said he will seek approval from the commission to immediately begin preparations for relaying digital copies to organizations such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial so that files can be released once the political green light is given.

Of the 11 countries, only the United States, Israel and Poland have endorsed the agreement lifting restrictions on research, which comes in the form of amendments to a 1955 treaty.

Officials said they believe Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Britain and Greece will ratify the amendments before the next meeting in May. Action by France could be delayed by the presidential election in April, and the positions of Belgium and Italy were unclear.

The U.S. delegation has said it will press for measures to bypass full ratification if it appeared a lengthy delay was likely. No decision was expected before the May meeting, however.

Bad Arolsen contains original Nazi documents the Allies seized from concentration camps as well as copies of wartime municipal records and other sources identifying victims of the Third Reich’s persecutions.

Anne Frank on list in files
So far, it has been used only to trace people missing after the war or the fate of Holocaust victims, drawing on an index of 17.5 million names in its files. Among them are Anne Frank, the Dutch teenage diarist, writer Elie Wiesel and a list of 1,000 rescued slave laborers known as Schindler’s List.

Later, it was used to validate compensation claims. After Germany and German industries agreed in 2000 to pay indemnities for forced labor, the Tracing Service handled 190,000 inquiries within 18 months.

In the last 60 years, the archive has responded to 11 million such inquiries, but survivors have complained about delays and the scant information they received. Meister said the backlog of inquiries will be cleared by the end of the year.

Holocaust scholars have been clamoring for years to see the files. Survivors also say information in the archive will fill in gaps in their own histories.

The Associated Press, which was granted extensive access to the archive in the last four months, has seen a vast array of letters by Nazi commanders, Gestapo orders and vivid testimony from victims and observers of the brutality of camp life and the “death marches” when camps were ordered cleared of prisoners at the end of the war.

Meister said he hoped this week’s meeting would approve a draft set of rules for scholars to begin using all the documents at Bad Arolsen as early as possible. Until now, a few researchers have been allowed access to the archive’s historical section, but personal records of victims have remained off-limits.

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