BONN (Jan. 27)
Premier Shimon Peres of Israel laid a wreath at the Jewish memorial monument on the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hannover today. A cantor recited Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. The Israeli leader visited the documentation center where he examined photographs and fragments of literature attesting to the atrocities committed there more than 40 years ago.
Peres walked along the rows of deserted barracks, vestigial remains of the Holocaust. He said little. He was visibly moved and fought to hold back tears. At least 20 members of his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews and others who perished at Bergen-Belsen.
Peres’ visit to the site was described as private, something quite apart from the political and economic aspects of his official three-day visit to West Germany.
Although he was accompanied by a ranking politician, Prime Minister Hans Albrecht of the federal state of Lower Saxony, on his tour of Bergen-Belsen, their conversation concerned the past and plans to expand the documentation center into a research and educational facility that will serve as a meeting place for German youth, the post-war generation with no memories of the Third Reich.
TO PROMOTE UNDERSTANDING AND RECONCILIATION
Peres said after the visit that he went to Bergen-Belsen in part to promote understanding and reconciliation with the German people. He spoke of the new democratic Germany with which Israel wants to establish cooperation and promote understanding.
The Israeli Premier said he was primarily interested in launching a dialogue but this could not be done unless memories of the past are kept alive. In an interview yesterday with the German newspaper Bild, Peres said of the Holocaust that Israelis and Jews all over the world “cannot forget or let this be forgotten.” He added that “a new Germany has arisen from that hell and that gives me reason for hope.”
Peres’ words about reconciliation were reminiscent of those spoken by the last prominent visitor to Bergen-Belsen, President Reagan, though in a different context. Reagan, who visited West Germany last May, went to the death camp site in a last-minute change of itinerary in order to deflect criticism and outrage over his plans to place a wreath at the German military cemetery at Bitburg, where about 50 members of the notorious Waffen SS are buried among other German war dead. Reagan’s visit to Bergen-Belsen was boycotted by Jews, as was his appearance a few hours later at Bitburg.
Peres arrived in Bonn early yesterday evening and met with Germany’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He postponed his other official meetings until after the visit to Bergen-Belsen. But he hosted a breakfast for West German Jewish leaders this morning at the Schloss Giemnich near Bonn, the official residence for guests of the government.
This afternoon, Peres was greeted by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the two reviewed a military guard of honor outside the Chancellor’s office. A military band played the Israeli and German national anthems and the two leaders met privately for half an hour. They will meet again for three hours tomorrow afternoon.
German sources said Peres’ talk with Genscher last night was focussed largely on Bonn’s reluctance to join the American-imposed sanctions against Libya, which the U.S. insists was behind the terrorist attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports last December 27. Genscher will report on their meeting to his colleagues of the European Economic Community (EEC) who are meeting in Brussels today.
Peres said in a newspaper interview that he failed to understand why Europeans fight terrorism in their own countries but refuse to join the battle against international terrorism.
Peres is scheduled to meet separately this evening with former Chancellor Willy Brandt, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), and with the conservative Prime Minister of Bavaria, Franz-Joseph Strauss, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) which is part of Kohl’s ruling coalition.
On Wednesday, Peres will visit West Berlin, the first Prime Minister of Israel to visit the city that was the capital of the Third Reich. He is the second Israeli Premier to come to West Germany. Yitzhak Rabin, when he was Prime Minister, came here in 1975.