West German Envoy and B’nai B’rith Leaders Offer Conciliatory Gestures Between West Germany and U.S.
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West German Envoy and B’nai B’rith Leaders Offer Conciliatory Gestures Between West Germany and U.S.

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Following the gradual abatement of the furor and protest that flared over President Reagan’s recent visit to the West German military cemetery at Bitburg, West Germany’s Ambassador to the U.S. and leaders of B’nai B’rith International yesterday offered gestures of reconciliation between West Germany and American Jews.

“Let us build a solid, long-term basis for our relationship so that sudden eruptions like the painful debate of the last few weeks can be avoided,” Ambassador Gunther van Well urged the B’nai B’rith Board of Governors in an address on “The German-Jewish Relationship After Bitburg” at their annual meeting.

Quoting from a conciliatory speech by West German President Richard von Weizsacker delivered following the Bitburg visit, Well stressed his country’s commitment to keeping alive the memories of the Holocaust. But he also appealed for the strengthening of the German-American Jewish relationship as a means to enhance the awareness among Germans of the Jewish cultural life that thrived in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power, and the shared cultural and spiritual heritage of Germans and many Jews in this country.


The reestablishment of dialogue and the rebuilding of ties has been less successful with American Jewry than with Israel, the Ambassador said. Citing the efforts of figures such as the late Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Leo Baeck, the late German Jewish leader who, on returning from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, was the first to call for the reinstitution of B’nai B’rith in Europe, Well said:

“Their objectives and standards remain valid for us. They knew that it was not possible simply to carry on where the past left off. But this did not prevent them, on the basis of a shared cultural heritage, from talking to each other, from establishing German-Jewish relations in a slow process of getting closer to each other. This process has been more intensive with Israel than with American Jewry. We would wish that the troubling painful discussion of the last few weeks leads American Jews to join us in new determined efforts to establish closer links between the Federal Republic of Germany and American Jewish communities.”


During a meeting with reporters that followed the Ambassador’s address, B’nai B’rith International executive vice president Daniel Thursz said that unlike Israel, “The American Jewish community has not yet come to terms with reconciliation.”

“There has been sort of an intellectual iron curtain … and we have not dealt with it,” Thursz said, observing that many American Jews still refuse to visit West Germany or to buy its products.” In a crazy kind of way, Bitburg, I think, can begin that process,” Thursz suggested.

On the visit to Bitburg itself and the bitterness that the controversy aroused, Well maintained that the favorable German response to von Weizsacker’s speech best reflected public opinion in this country Weizsacker stressed in his speech that no German who lived through the period of World War II can claim to have been unaware of what was being done to the Jews, and he warned that “there can be no reconciliation without remembrance.”


The German Ambassador said, in a question-and-answer session, that some anti-Semitic comments picked up by the press in Germany in response to the Jewish protests against the Bitburg visit represented the sentiments of a small minority.

“There have been a few extreme reactions of a limited sort, but it does not reflect the basic feeling of the country. That basic feeling I think is reflected by the response to von Wiezsacker’s speech,” Well said.

In his meeting with reporters Well avoided commenting on whether the visit to Bitburg should have been cancelled early on, but he said “I certainly would have thought that we could have avoided some of the misunderstandings.” He declined to specify what he thought the misunderstandings were and how they could have been avoided.

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