NEW YORK (Jul. 4)
Jewish leaders in the United States and abroad are hailing yesterday’s vote by the West German Bundestag (Parliament) to eliminate the statute of limitations on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. The measure to do away with the statute, which passed its first reading last March; was adopted on its second reading yesterday by a vote of 253-228 and on the third reading by a slightly larger margin of 255-222.
Had it not been abolished, the statute would have gone into effect Jan. 1, 1980 rendering Nazi war criminals not yet subjected to the legal process forever immune from prosecution. The measure has yet to be approved by the Bundesrat (upper house) which is more conservative in its makeup than the Bundestag.
The voting followed 10 hours of intense debate and many weeks of preliminary discussion that was closely watched all over the globe and aroused passions in West Germany. Jews especially had been urging the West German Parliament to prevent the statute from taking effect and to continue the prosecution of war criminals with no time limit.
POSITIONS OF BUNDESTAG DEPUTIES
Bundestag deputies were permitted to vote their conscience on this delicate issue rather than along party lines. The governing Social Democrats (SPD) and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wanted the statute lifted; the Christian Democrats (CDU) wanted it maintained. Justice Minister Hans-Jochen Vogel, urging that the statute be eliminated, told the
Most CDU deputies argued for the statute. Alois Mertes, who opened the debate, called on the House to “preserve the law as it is.” He said this “should not be mistaken as meaning to forgive and forget” but to preserve the law in a law-abiding country. Mertes also called on Israel “to stop exerting pressure” on the West German legislature, warning that it “could damage German-Israeli relations.”
Several dozen demonstrators, dressed in concentration camp uniforms; sat in the public gallery. At one point they jeered speakers who called for preservation of the law on grounds that 35 years after the war, evidence has disappeared and witnesses, if living, can no longer accurately recall the facts.
Chancellor Schmidt said on a radio interview after the vote that he was “highly pleased” with the outcome. He said “It was necessary for justice and good order and it was also necessary for Germany’s own reputation and image throughout the world.”
JUSTICE AND MORALITY EXPRESSED
In a cable to the Chancellor yesterday, the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles lauded the Bundestag’s decision “on behalf of justice and morality.” The cable said: “By abolishing the statute the Bundestag has re-emphasized the German people’s special relationship to the Holocaust and responsibility to bring Nazi murderers to justice wherever and whenever they are found.” The telegram was signed by Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, coordinator of the International Effort to Abolish the Statute of Limitations; and Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center.
Richard Maass, president of the American Jewish Committee, also stressed the themes of moral and ethical responsibility in the Bundestag’s move. “This action indicates recognition by the Bundestag of the moral and ethical imperatives for such legislation, transcending the purely legal considerations,” Maass said.
“The American Jewish Committee has long supported the abolition of the statute of limitations for murder. On two occasions we have strongly expressed this view in meetings with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, with members of his party, and the opposition parties, and with members of the legal committees of the Bundestag. We believe that this historic action by the Bundestag will make it possible to accelerate cooperative efforts in areas of mutual concern.”
WAR CRIMINALS STILL AT LARGE
Justin Finger, national civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said that the Bonn decision was partly due to world public opinion. “It is now the turn of the West German authorities to actively seek out and bring to the court of law those surviving Nazi war criminals.” Finger declared.
Finger estimated that thousands of war criminals are still at large with several hundred living in the United States. Finger added that ADL has established a special task force to accelerate the probe of Nazi war criminals. “We offer our full cooperation with United States and West German officials to help bring unpunished war criminals to trial.”
Albert Vorspan, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, added the Reform synagogue organization’s congratulations to the German leadership for “exercising moral responsibility in the face of acute pressure to bury the past.” A spokesman for the American Jewish Congress welcomed the decision of the West German Parliament as a “fitting recognition” that no Nazi war criminal may escape accountability for his actions.
WARNING FOR THE FUTURE
In Geneva, Philip Klutznick, president of the World Jewish Congress, in a telegram today to Dr. Richard Stuecklen, President of the Bundestag, welcomed the decision “for its moral and political significance, as recognizing the principle that crimes of such enormity can never be subject to statutory limitations and as a warning for the future.” Copies of the telegram were sent to the leaders of the four parliamentarian parties in the Bundestag with expressions of appreciation to those of their members who voted in favor of the decision.
The decision of the West German Parliament was also hailed by leaders of the Jewish community in Montreal, Canada. Jack Cummings, vice president of the Allied Jewish Community Services and an officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he was pleased by the decision because, “by the horrid nature of the crimes, there should never be amnesty for those who committed them.”
Dr. Harry Stein, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, said the Bundestag’s action “will provide encouragement for people everywhere to see that the cause of justice has been upheld, especially at a time when so much injustice is going on in the world.” Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim termed the decision “a tremendous moral achievement for the German people that speaks highly for them.”