From prison brothels to slave labor camps, 15 scholars concluded a two-week examination of an untapped repository of millions of Nazi records, and hailed it Thursday as a rich vein of raw material that will deepen the study of the Holocaust.
It was the first concentrated academic sweep of the long-private archive administered by the International Tracing Service since it opened its doors last November to Holocaust survivors, victims relatives and historical researchers.
The opening of the files to scholars followed a series of stories on the archive by The Associated Press, which was the first news organization to be granted extensive access to the long-restricted files.
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.
Lau had said his rescuer was a person called Fyodor from Rostow. Kenneth Waltzer of Michigan State University found it was Fyodor Michajlitschenko, 18, arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, who gave the small boy ear warmers and treated him 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 his university's 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 petty theft or other minor crime.
"We always portrayed them as volunteers, but I wanted to know why they volunteered," she said. She believed the prostitutes faced "a choiceless choice."
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 to the files. It took another 18 months for all 11 to ratify the required treaty amendments before the archive could open.
Clearer image of Holocaust
Reto Meister, the archive's director, said he still gets 1,000 inquires a month asking for personal information. Now, the archive is also getting dozens of academic inquiries or visitors every month, he said.
The gray metal shelves and cabinets contain 16 miles of transport lists, camp registries, medical records, forced labor files and death certificates of some 17.5 million people subjected to Nazi persecutions.
Taken together with written and oral testimonies and the transcripts of war crimes trials, the dry data at Bad Arolsen add texture to the known picture of the Holocaust, from the first concentration camps created within weeks of Hitler's rise to power in January 1933 to the defeat of Nazism in May 1945.
"It was much more than I expected," said Trouve.
"I've been working on concentration camps for 15 years. We know there was forced laborers in Germany — millions of them," she said. "But then you go through these lists. You see the farmer employing so many people. You see the factory employing hundreds of people. Everything was blurred, but suddenly you have a clear image."
Jean-Marc Dreyfus, of Manchester University in Britain, said the archive "won't utterly change our view of the Holocaust, but it will be very precious for researchers to complement and pursue new research."