BAD AROLSEN, Germany — Looking back at the first weeks after World War II, a French lieutenant named Henri Francois-Poncet despaired at ever fulfilling his mission of establishing the fate of French inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
For the living skeletons who survived the Nazi terror, the Displaced Persons camp set up two miles away offered little relief from misery.
A bleak picture springs from typewritten reports by the Allied officers, found in the massive archive of the International Tracing Service in the central German town of Bad Arolsen.
People still died at a rate of 1,000 to 1,500 a day. Corpses were stacked in front of barracks, to be carted away by captured SS guards. “Bodies frequently remained for several days in the huts, the other inmates being too weak to carry them out,” Francois-Poncet wrote in a report for the Allied Military Government.
“As most of the survivors could not even give their own names, it was useless trying to obtain information as to the identity of the dead,” he wrote. He reported a meager 25 percent success rate.
When the Third Reich surrendered in May 1945, 8 million people were left uprooted around Europe. Millions drifted through the 2,500 hastily arranged DP camps before they were repatriated.
Far from scenes of joyful liberation that should have greeted the end of Nazi oppression, the files reveal desperation, loss and confusion, and overwhelmed and often insensitive military authorities.
“Owing to ill treatment by the Germans, most DPs have a distrust and fear of the Allied authorities,” said a September 1945 report signed by British Lt. Col. C.C. Allan. “Many DPs have sunk into complete apathy regarding their future.”
Liberated concentration camps were transformed into DP camps. Food was still scarce — often just coffee and wet black bread — and medical care was insufficient, said a report written for President Harry Truman.
Known for its unparalleled collection of original concentration camp papers, the ITS, a branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross, also safeguards the world’s largest documentation on postwar DP camps. It has nearly 3.4 million names on its card index of those who sought designation as refugees eligible for aid.
Until now, the documents have been used only to trace missing people and verify restitution claims. But now the full breadth of the archive, filling 16 miles of shelf space, is to be opened to historians for the first time. At a meeting last week in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the archive’s 11-nation supervisory commission agreed to begin transferring electronic copies this autumn to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
AP correspondent Melissa Eddy in Bad Arolsen and AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York
contributed to this report.