A long-secret trove of 400,000 World War II British and American intelligence documents declassified yesterday at the National Archives at College Park has prompted historians to ask whether more could have been done to save Italian Jews from transport to Nazi death camps.
The declassified material includes a chronology of the Holocaust in Italy documented by British intelligence interceptions of German SS messages between Rome and Berlin in 1943 when the first Italian Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
The "decodes," said Richard Breitman, professor of history at American University, "provide more fuel for the continuing debate about how much the West knew [and] when about the Holocaust and whether the West might have done more to save lives during the Holocaust."
"I find it disheartening that there was not more use of some of that information at that time," he said. "I find it frustrating that it has taken so long to get this information out."
He said the long-continuing secrecy about intelligence activities impeded research and historical understanding.
Richard Naftali of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs said a statement by Winston Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt might have led the Jews of Rome to take seriously the rumors of the danger they faced when the Germans took over Northern Italy.
"It is clear that a statement on the radio to the effect Allied forces feared for the safety of Romans, particularly the Jews of Rome, might well have had an effect on the decisions made by people to get out," Naftali said.
The extensive "hodgepodge" of information, which promises to keep scholars busy for years, came from the previously secret files of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor of the CIA.
The documents provide the "keys to the kingdom" of World War II spy wars and illuminate darker passages of the Holocaust, an assembly of historians said.
"There are documents here that will shed new light that will influence, I am sure, the writing of the history of the German atrocities against the Jewish people," said Naftali, who co-wrote with Breitman a report on the records.
World War II, he said, was fought by armies of spies and code-breakers along with soldiers, sailors and air men and women.
"Today," he said, "with the release of 400,000 pages of material withheld by the CIA for decades, we come the closet we ever have to understanding that secret war, its costs and its achievements. These files teem with human drama."
The documents were released under the auspices of the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group, which was given the task in 1998 of finding and declassifying World War II war crime records.
Among the more remarkable accounts are British transcripts of conversations among German POWs secretly recorded during the last year of the war.
"I think it is significant that German soldiers, sailors, SS men were willing to talk among themselves about what the Nuremberg war crimes trials called crimes against humanity," Breitman said.
"These transcripts contain a range of frank views and this kind of evidence is likely to work against over-simplified constructions of a single uniform German attitude toward the Nazi regime, toward Jews and toward the Holocaust."
Among these tape transcripts is the story a German sailor in a POW camp told two buddies about the murder of Jews on a beach near Libau, Latvia.
"The first time I saw it I was sick," said Obermaschinist Raab, a chief stoker in a ship's engine room. "I had never seen anyone shot before."
The Jewish "prisoners" transported coal all morning, then dug their own grave after noon, a trench 90 feet long and "about as deep as a man's height." The killing began at sunset.
"By the time they reached the trench they were beaten up and bleeding," Raab said. "They had to form up and enter the trench at the double. The SS men appeared from out of the thicket. Some naval gunners were among them. There may have been six Jews and twelve SS and naval gunners, always two to aim at one."
They fired. The Jewish prisoners sank down.
"The sergeant-major went up to them with his tommy-gun. If anyone so much as blinked, he shot them. After which the [Latvians] came and threw a few spades full of sand over them. ...
"At the same moment, another truck appeared. They were also whipped into the trench. They had to tread on the others. They were also shot. About five or six layers lying on top of each other."
In a sort of grotesque coincidence, the Libau killings are the only atrocity captured on film in the record of the Holocaust. The video version was played at the release of the documents yesterday.
"The transcript could be the voice-over for this film," said Eli M. Rosebaum, director of the Justice Department's Office for Special Investigations.