Germany's top Jewish organization on Tuesday condemned a medical organization's decision to bestow its top honor on a prominent physician who was once a member of the SS and the Nazi party.
Dr. Hans-Joachim Sewering, 92, was one of four physicians honored with the top award of the Professional Association of German Internists, known as the BDI, on March 30.
Der Spiegel magazine publicized the tribute in this week's edition, noting that in 1933 Sewering joined the SS, a paramilitary organization loyal to Nazi ideology. He joined the Nazi party a year later.
"This is absolutely the wrong signal and it's a scandal," said Stephan Kramer, general secretary of Germany's Central Council of Jews.
Nazi past well known
He said Sewering's Nazi past was well known — having led him in 1993 to publicly decline the presidency of the World Medical Association. The World Jewish Congress had threatened to lead a boycott of the international association.
The BDI, which has some 25,000 members, issued a statement defending its decision and saying that Sewering had been investigated by German prosecutors and was never charged.
An investigation by Munich prosecutors into Sewering, "who has never denied that he joined the SS and the NSDAP (Nazi party) as a young man ... was closed in 1993," the organization said.
In a statement, BDI President Wolfgang Wesiack said that Sewering made decades-long contributions to the "freedom of the medical profession" in Germany and the national health service. That statement made no mention of his Nazi-era past, but noted that the elderly doctor was not able to attend the award ceremony.
When the controversy surrounding his past came up in 1993 with his election as president to the World Medical Association, Sewering did not dispute his involvement with the Nazis.
Sewering on 'watch-list'
But he denied a further accusation that in 1943 he had knowingly approved the transfer of a 14-year-old mentally retarded girl to a place where she was killed under the Nazis' euthanasia program.
Sewering asserted that the Nazis had stopped the killing of the mentally retarded in 1941. He said the Roman Catholic nuns at the clinic where he worked would not have agreed to the transfer if the girl was to be killed.
A year later, the United States put Sewering on their "watch-list" of possible Nazi criminals, barring the prominent doctor from entering the country. The Bavarian justice ministry, however, noted amid further accusations in 1995 that prosecutors had investigated Sewering and found no grounds for any criminal charges.
Still, Kramer said that Sewering's membership alone in the SS and Nazi party should have been reason enough for the BDI not to honor him.
"It shows a certain mentality and a certain attraction to the Nazis — it is more than someone who just floated with the crowd," Kramer said.