updated 4/19/2007 9:26:57 PM ET 2007-04-20T01:26:57

An international agreement to unseal a long-closed archive of Nazi concentration camp documents for scholarship has won crucial endorsement from Germany, officials said Thursday, giving the accord a majority among the 11-nations overseeing the treasure of historical documents.

The German Embassy in Washington announced that President Horst Koehler signed the ratification papers April 13, adopting amendments to the 1955 treaties governing the archive.

The storehouse of 30 million to 50 million pages is administered by the International Tracing Service, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The announcement came as the oversight committee prepared to meet next month in The Hague to finalize arrangements for the transfer of digital copies to other Holocaust research centers, where survivors will be able to see their own files and historical researchers will be allowed to cull them for new insights into the Nazi machinery of persecution.

Key endorsement
All 11 nations must ratify the amendments before they take effect. But Germany's endorsement was crucial because of its place in history as the successor to the Nazi regime and because the archives are on German soil, in the central town of Bad Arolsen, and subject to German law.

Germany is the sixth nation to ratify after the United States, Israel, Poland, the Netherlands and Britain.

The remaining countries are Belgium, France, Italy, Greece and Luxembourg. Most have said they intend to complete ratification before the end of the year.

The collection of captured Nazi documents — death books, transportation lists, camp registrations, forced labor registers — was handed to the Red Cross to help find missing persons and reunite families in the postwar chaos. It later was used to validate compensation claims by survivors or victims' relatives.

Access to files rarely granted
Since 1955, it has handled more than 11 million requests for information, but it rarely has allowed anyone but Red Cross staff to see the material.

The files contain references to 17.5 million names. Their historical importance became clearer in recent months after The Associated Press obtained extensive access to the material on condition that victims not be identified fully.

The amendments were adopted last May after Germany lifted long-held objections that victims' privacy would be violated.

But the ratification process, requiring parliamentary approval in most countries, proved more arduous than anticipated, disappointing aging survivors.

Last week, the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution urging the remaining countries to quickly complete the legal steps.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, also urged the commission at its May meeting to approve the immediate distribution of copies that already have been digitized.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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