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HISTORY : Nazi-Hunters Fear Transfer of Document Center's Control

May 18, 1994|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A prominent German physician had just been elected president of the World Medical Assn. when researchers probing his past discovered one noteworthy association omitted from his resume.

Hans Joachim Sewering had been a Nazi and a member of the dreaded SS during World War II. Records indicated that he signed an order in 1943 sending a retarded girl to her death as part of Hitler's euthanasia program.

Sewering denied knowing the girl would be killed, but an international outcry forced him to resign as president-elect of the prestigious group last year after the World Jewish Congress revealed his wartime history.

This dark page from Sewering's past was uncovered by WJC investigators using records at the Berlin Documents Center, a repository of Nazi personnel records that for nearly 50 years has been a treasure trove of information for scholars and Nazi hunters.

Now, however, researchers fear that the virtually unlimited access they have had to the American-run center is about to be curtailed under terms of an agreement returning custody of the files to Germany on July 1.

While the agreement guarantees U.S. officials will continue to have access to the files, Jewish organizations and other independent researchers are concerned that Germany's strict privacy laws will deny them similar entree.

State Department officials say these fears are unfounded because the accord stipulates that the transfer will take place only after a microfilm copy of all documents in the BDC files has been turned over to the United States. The microfilm--40,000 rolls of it--will be housed at the National Archives, where it will be accessible as soon as user copies are made from the master film.

Far from restricting access, the agreement ultimately should make the documents more accessible "by providing the means to use them to Americans who lack the luxury of a research budget to travel to Berlin," noted Mary Ann Peters, deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs.

But WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg and others who oppose the transfer to German control note that it will take the National Archives at least two years to generate a complete set of user copies of the more than 75 million pages of documents.

They worry about the access that private researchers will have to the originals in the meantime.

Airing their concerns at a recent congressional hearing, two prominent scholars noted that historians frequently have had trouble gaining access to wartime documents under German control.

"Access is often granted or denied in a completely arbitrary fashion," said Henry Friedlander, a professor of history at City University of New York.

While some German archivists are helpful, others can be "downright obstructionist," added Geoffrey J. Giles, a University of Florida historian. "Archivists have lied about the existence of files, they have flatly refused to let scholars use them and occasionally they have even burnt Nazi files," Giles told the House Foreign Affairs' subcommittee on human rights.

Peters said that while State Department officials do not expect that access to the documents will become a problem, the head of the U.S. consulate in Berlin would intercede on behalf of researchers if difficulties do arise.

Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) and other subcommittee members appear unconvinced. "We are giving up something over which we now have control on the assumption of continued goodwill and cooperation (from Germany) . . . but it is no more than an assumption," he said.

While Lantos has threatened to introduce legislation to stop the transfer, congressional sources predicted that the issue will be resolved in the coming weeks with a protocol guaranteeing researchers access to the original documents until the microfilmed copies are available at the National Archives.

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