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“It must not be that German archives ask victims of National Socialism to pay”

For Andrew Silton, the death of his parents was the reason for an intensive study of their biography.

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“It must not be that German archives ask victims of National Socialism to pay”

For Andrew Silton, the death of his parents was the reason for an intensive study of their biography. Remembering the stories that shaped her life and his also helped the New Yorker with grief. In January 2021, his 96-year-old father Peter died, three and a half years earlier his then 96-year-old mother Lore. Both were German Jews who survived Nazi terror and met each other in the United States shortly after the end of World War II.

Within just one week, Andrew Silton researched the life of his parents between 1933 and their marriage in 1949. The research quickly included his grandparents, Kurt and Elli Silberstein, as well as Moritz and Hilde Rosenberg. His grandfather Kurt had been seriously wounded in World War I, his grandmother Elli was an aspiring opera singer whose career ended in Erfurt in 1932 when the Nazis took control there.

His father's family had left Berlin for Yugoslavia in 1933, where they were later captured by the Italians and deported to a concentration camp. His mother's family left Hohenlimburg in 1936 and went to Belgium. After a failed attempt to flee to England in May 1940, his mother worked in Brussels under an alias until she was betrayed. The family later made it to Switzerland.

Although Andrew Silton knew the basics of his parents' biography, he had many unanswered questions after their deaths. He researched in international archives - and was successful. In Belgium he found hundreds of pages of police reports, correspondence and files. In Italy he found letters written by his grandparents to the Ministry of the Interior to challenge their internment. In Switzerland he found arrest reports.

He then turned to Germany's state archives to research his parents' lives in the 1930s. He found what he was looking for in the Federal Archives and in several state archives of the federal states. The fact that he had to pay fees for the documents there – as in Italy, Belgium and Austria – burdens him. "It is very painful to pay for the documents that show how my family was deprived of their property, citizenship, freedom and life," said the 68-year-old. It's not about the money, it's about the principle.

In the Federal Archives and the State Archives of North Rhine-Westphalia, Silton received files that described in detail how his parents and grandparents fought for decades for compensation. It was not until the late 1990s that his father received a small monthly allowance when his internment in Italy's Ferramonti camp was recognized. His mother lost a lawsuit in 2008 because she could not prove that she had worked under an alias in 1941. "My parents were old when they were still trying to get the German government to acknowledge their persecution," says Silton. "I shouldn't have to pay to get these materials."

In a letter available to WELT from the Hohenlimburg local NSDAP group to the Association of National Socialist German Lawyers, it is said about the brother of Andrew Silton's grandmother Hilde, Rudolf Benjamin, that he was "called a 'cheeky Jew lout' because of his arrogant and impudent behavior towards the National Socialists". “The German government revoked Rudolf Benjamin’s license to practice law in 1933. And I had to pay to read how the Gauleiter and others slandered him,” says Silton. About 52 euros were due for documents about the expropriation of his grandfather's family property and the sale to the company IG Farben.

Only the Hamburg State Archives informed him that the costs would be covered "when dealing with crimes committed in and by National Socialist Germany against the inquiring person or their family members". For example, the State Archives of North Rhine-Westphalia billed Silton for making digital copies of 2,464 pages for EUR 1,238. If the reproductions go beyond a small scale, similar fees or costs of private service providers have to be paid in the Federal Archives.

The vice-chairman of the Union faction in the Bundestag, Mathias Middelberg, is now suggesting a change in the fee schedule. "It must not be the case that Holocaust victims or their relatives who want to receive copies of the documents about the persecution of their families by the Nazi regime are asked to pay for it by German archives today," said the CDU politician. "We cannot make amends for what happened, but we should not also be charging those affected for information about the murders of their families."

The Federal Archives had informed Middelberg's office that in an estimated 20 cases per year the inquiries from Holocaust victims and their families are so extensive that the copies have to be ordered from an external service provider at a cost. Middelberg turned to Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth (Greens), who is responsible for the fee structure of the Federal Archives.

"We are aware of only a small number of complaints about the cost of providing copies," Roth said. A waiver of fees would probably lead to significantly larger orders for copies and would overwhelm the capacities of the Federal Archives, Roth continued. "Against this background, the regulations currently in force are considered sufficient."

Middelberg disappoints this answer. "I would have expected the responsible Minister of State for Culture, who has so far been noticed to be rather limited for her sensitivity on the subject of anti-Semitism, to answer my relevant question more sensitively," he said. "Instead, Ms. Roth defends an administrative regulation that only insufficiently takes into account the special concern of such archive users."

"Kick-off Politics" is WELT's daily news podcast. The most important topic analyzed by WELT editors and the dates of the day. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, among others, or directly via RSS feed.

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