Science: File under 'never to be forgotten': Tom Pullar-Strecker reports on the unease stirred up by plans to computerise the surviving records of the Auschwitz concentration camp

Those who want the book on Auschwitz closed are set to be frustrated. The original archives of the concentration camp complex are instead to be computerised. Putting the records on computer is a joint project, initiated by Jan Parcer, a project leader at the Auschwitz/Birkenau Museum, and Dr Manfred Thaller, President of the International Association of History and Computing and a professor at the Max Planck Institute for History in Gottingen.

The source material held in the archives consists of several thousand documents and tens of thousands of photographs of individual prisoners. They would fill a bookshelf 90 metres long, or in their minders' new currency, 500 to 1,000 gigabytes of optical storage on the computer system donated by IBM.

Many documents, such as the 'Gypsy books' lay buried for years after the camps were liberated and can no longer be deciphered without image processing techniques developed at the Max Planck Institute. But the goals of the massive project go beyond simple preservation. The task of keying-in the source material on to a single, totally digital, integrated database will take several years. Once it is done, the records should allow researchers and academics to build up a much more complete picture of the day-to-day mechanics of the camps' operation.

This will allow them to analyse in detail for the first time whether there were systematic differences in the way prisoners from certain ethnic minorities were treated. And, according to Jan Parcer, it may also shed more light on the nature of co- operation between the camps and local arms factories, to which prisoners were rented out according to the official SS doctrine of 'extermination by work'. For such research purposes, the archiving software developed at the Max Planck Institute facilitates a geographical representation of the camps, visually showing the passage of different categories of prisoners.

In addition, the project is intended to have an educational function. Dr Thaller is currently talking with Dr Frank Colson of the Hides research group at the University of Southampton about the possibility of distributing parts of the final database to secondary schools and universities on CD-Rom.

The material would include digital reproductions of prisoners' photographs and biographies of their lives in the camps. As Dr Thaller points out: 'Britain is currently the undisputed leader in 5educational software in history and it could be much harder to say that Auschwitz is all a 'big lie' if you have quality reproductions of the sources in front of you.'

Of the millions who died at Auschwitz and Birkenau, many were dispatched to the gas chambers on arrival without formalities. None the less, Dr Thaller argues: 'There exists incomparably more information than people would expect. The SS tried to destroy the material systematically prior to the evacuation of the camp but this did not succeed, partly because numerous copies of many things were spread throughout the camp, partly because some prisoners - notably those who belonged to the resistance movement within the camps - tried to hide some documents.

'We have an enormous number of lists of a very well organised bureaucracy: lists of people arriving; lists of people being sent to specific work details; lists of people being assigned to the sick quarters; quadruply signed notes asking for a prisoner to be punished in a specific way which would almost certainly result in their death. This material is in certain ways the most frightening surviving in Auschwitz, as it shows how 'normally' the death factory was organised, with memos and bureaucratic procedures just as in any other large institution.

'As it is at present, the information cannot really be used, and just shows glimpses of individuals on specific dates. What we intend to do is to collect all these glimpses into short biographies which may at least form a rudimentary sketch of their lives in Auschwitz.'

After their first meeting on a computer science course in Vienna in 1989, Dr Thaller and Jan Parcer received enthusiastic backing from concentration camp survivor, Matt Zygelman, and from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Vienna, as well as financial support from numerous donors.

IBM has donated about dollars 250,000 worth of computer equipment. This includes a Risc System/6000 server with graphics station and four colour scanners to enter the graphical material. An optical library, together with appropriate software and laser printers are included in the package.

Yet like everything surrounding the legacy of Auschwitz, the latest journey of the victims - from the narrow-gauge railway leading into Birkenau to the digitalised information highway of IBM's Aix operating system - is loaded with emotion; especially for those who have lived their lives, spiritually or physically, in close proximity to the camps.

The camp and its museum have essentially had a memorial function, and some argue that there is simply not very much sense in such detail when it comes to maintaining the memory.

Father Piotr Wrona, the Roman Catholic priest whose diocese includes a local hostel for people visiting the camps and a convent of 120 nuns who are engaged in contemplative prayer nearby, appears ambivalent. Though voicing no objections to the initiative, he maintains: 'You can't understand. You can only point 'here is a pair of shoes', 'here is some human hair'. But this is a long way from understanding.

'Since the Communist regime collapsed there have been thousands of people coming here from the West, it is a melting pot of ideas. But I'm afraid it is only a temporary fashion, something that only attracts people bored of pop culture and who want to touch real horror.'

Dr Thaller discounts the danger that computerising such material - with all the impersonality that this medium evokes - might somehow dehumanise its content. He warns that for too many people, Auschwitz is far removed from reality already. 'Unfortunately Auschwitz has not proved to be a nest of monsters,' he says, 'but a frighteningly and chillingly normal institution, run by absurdly normal people. I doubt if it is a good idea to remain in a state where we assume Auschwitz to be an atrocity that cannot be understood and has to be shuddered at.

'Only if we dig into the nightmare and fully understand that it has been created by normal people, whose actions seem fairly normal until the sudden drop into the incomprehensible, can we ever get an understanding which can help us to prevent a recurrence.'

(Photograph omitted)

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