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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone