WASHINGTON — The International Committee of the Red Cross has released World War II documents showing the organization knew about the persecution of Jews in Nazi death camps but felt powerless to speak out.
One of the most startling revelations contained in the records is that the Nazis agreed to let Red Cross workers into German concentration camps in March 1945 to try to ensure the prisoners' safety.
Relief workers took advantage of the disarray within the Nazi regime weeks before its defeat, pleading with concentration camp commanders to allow them access to Jewish inmates, according to the documents, which were given to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last week.
But the arrangement prevented the Red Cross from removing prisoners.
After 18 months of prodding from Holocaust museum officials, the Red Cross recently agreed to change a long-standing policy and open up its wartime records to the public.
The 25,000 microfilmed pages turned over to the museum contain Red Cross workers' firsthand accounts of Nazi atrocities.
Red Cross workers "are the most credible witnesses to these crimes," Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said at a ceremony marking release of the documents.
"Your representatives were permitted into the camps and you saw the unbelievable and recorded it and kept it in your files."
The Red Cross has long acknowledged that it knew about the Nazi persecution of Jews.
But the organization has maintained that if it had disclosed that knowledge during World War II, its ability to monitor prisoner-of-war camps on both sides would have been compromised.
"The International Committee of the Red Cross has shared responsibility for the silence of the world community," said Georges Willemin, the organization's archivist. "Could we have gone further? Could we have done more? I don't know."
Lerman said the documents would help answer that question, adding, "How can one be satisfied when a world perished while the other half of the world looked on?"
When asked why it took the Red Cross more than 50 years to make the records available, Willemin said, "It takes time to face your own history."
The decision to release the records, he added, "was an important change for an organization that through its history has been inclined to protect the privacy of its records so as not to run any risk of impairing its humanitarian work and its reputation for impartiality and neutrality."
Museum officials have so far only superficially examined the Red Cross records, which are expected to provide details on rescue missions, visits to concentration camps and ghettos, deportation operations and Jewish emigration during and after the war.
The documents will be available at the Holocaust museum and on the World Wide Web early this year. Copies will also be kept at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and at the Center for Jewish Documentation in Paris.