A Nazi treasure trove that is all in a day's work: Adrian Bridge takes a look at a Berlin production line with a grim and bizarre difference

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AT first glance they look like workers on any production line. With one hand they reach for one of the sheets of paper piled up on their right, place it mechanically on to the surface in front of them and - click] - it's on film and into the out-tray on their left. Then it's on to the next sheet of paper.

During the day the team of women involved in the project get through 40,000 to 50,000 such pieces of paper and the sound of the clicking cameras is almost constant. Now into their fifth year the whole task has become so automatic they barely look at what they are micro-filming.

That is perhaps just as well. If they looked too closely they might come across a great uncle or aunt, or even, much closer to home, their own father or mother. For these are no ordinary pieces of paper, and this is no ordinary project. What they are micro-filming, deep inside a Berlin basement, is the membership records of Hitler's Nazi party.

When the women are through, at some point early next year, nearly 11 million files on party members and more than the same number again on the SS, SA and other Nazi organisations will have been recorded. And at that point the United States, which has had custody of the records since 1945, will be ready to hand them over to Germany.

'This is the last large collection of Nazi files to be returned,' said David Marwell, director of the Berlin Document Centre in which the material has been stored and guarded since the war. 'But given the personal nature of these files, they are the most sensitive of them all.'

The duplication of the material, which includes detailed performance appraisals of thousands of SS officers, some of whom served at Auschwitz, has done much to quell possible protests.

'We have no need to fear possible restrictions on access,' said Andreas Nachama, a prominent member of Berlin's Jewish community. 'If for some reason it proves difficult to get to the originals here, researchers will always be able to see the micro-films in Washington. In some ways, it may make their work easier.'

The German authorities have promised they will not put up extra barriers. Like the Americans they will not open them to all and sundry, but to historians, war crimes investigators and individuals judged to have a legitimate interest.

News of the handover has attracted little interest or comment in the German press. In part this is because few revelations are likely to emerge from the files, many of which were discovered by US forces in 1945 stored in a paper mill near Munich, where they were about to be pulped.

In part, however, German indifference stems from a deeply-held desire to put the Nazi part of their history behind them. 'People just do not want to know about it anymore,' says Klaus Bolling, a former German diplomat and a member of the 'Association against Forgetting'.

Most experts agree that the overriding purpose to which the files will be put in the future will be historical research. 'There are thousands of dissertations waiting to be written on the basis of this material,' says Mr Marwell, leafing through a marriage application request from an SS officer containing his and his would-be bride's family trees stretching back six generations and detailed assesments of their physical and racial suitability for reproduction. 'In a tragic sense, these files are a treasure yet to be discovered for research,' says Mr Nachama.

But historians are not the only people who may show an interest - or see the files as potential treasure. Mystery still surrounds the theft more than five years ago of 10,000 documents from the centre, many of which were later discovered being sold to collectors of Nazi memorabilia - of which there are still a surprising number.

'A personal recommendation for promotion bearing, say, the signature of Himmler, would be worth a fortune on that market,' says Mr Marwell.

DRESDEN - City authorities reprimanded an official yesterday for using funds pencilled in for Jewish immigrants to send a group of skinheads on a visit to Israel. It also banned any repeat of the 10-day tour, during which 19 young right-wing extremists met Israeli youths, Reuter reports.