The Hague, Netherlands Moving more quickly than expected, the 11-nation body overseeing a long-secret archive of Nazi war records set procedures in motion Thursday to open millions of files on concentration camps and their victims before the end of the year.
Member nations made the decision knowing that within a year 10 percent of all Holocaust survivors now living may be dead, one American archive director said.
The governing commission of the International Tracing Service, the storehouse of an estimated 30 million to 50 million pages documenting the Holocaust, concluded a two-day meeting with a set of recommendations for copying and transferring files to Holocaust institutions for use by survivors, victims' relatives and scholars.
The recommendations must be adopted at a formal meeting of the 11 countries in May.
Before the material can be accessed, however, all the member countries must ratify an agreement adopted last year to end the 60-year ban on using the files for research.
"I am hopeful this will happen in 2007," said J. Christian Kennedy, the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, who led the U.S. delegation.
Israel, the United States, Poland and the Netherlands have completed ratification, and Germany, Britain and Luxembourg said they would ratify before the commission meets again in May.
But national elections in France and Belgium could cause delays in those countries, officials said, and the status of ratification in Italy and Greece was unclear.
The files, stored in Bad Arolsen, Germany, have been used since the 1950s to help locate missing persons or uncover the fate of people who disappeared during the Third Reich. Later, the files also were used to validate claims for compensation.
Only personnel of the Tracing Service, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, had access to the files, which fill 16 miles of gray metal filing cabinets and cardboard binders in six buildings in the central German resort town.
After this week's meeting, the process of opening the files "is irreversible," said Reto Meister, director of the Tracing Service, who briefed the commission on the archive's preparations to share the files.
In a key move, the 11 delegations agreed the Tracing Service should begin electronically transferring scanned files before the ratification process is complete, Meister told The Associated Press.
Institutions on the receiving end, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel's Yad Vashem memorial, will need several months to integrate the data and get them ready for public use.