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Demonstrators at White House Urge Reagan Not to Visit Bitburg Cemetery

May 1, 1985
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Only hours before President Reagan was scheduled to leave for West Germany, some 100 persons, including Holocaust survivors and six members of Congress, demonstrated in front of the White House today urging Reagan not to visit the German military cemetery at Bitburg this Sunday.

“The visit to Bitburg is a gesture of reconciliation with the Third Reich and not with today’s Federal Republic,” declared Rep. Gary Ackerman (D. N. Y.) who organized the rally. “It taints four decades of alliance with Holocaust shadows.”

The demonstrators included a busload of people from Ackerman’s district in Queens as well as others from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Washington area and a vanload of students from Yeshiva University in New York.

“I came because I feel very strongly that he (Reagan) is not correct in going to Bitburg,” Steven Kwestel, a Yeshiva University senior, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He said Reagan’s visit desecrates the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

The demonstrators carried signs such as “Reconsider Mr. President”, “Life is Not Hollywood,” and “That Place is Not Your Place.” The latter was a quotation from the remarks of Elie Wiesel, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, when he received the Congressional Gold Medal from Reagan at the White House April 19.

The demonstration was threatened with removal several times by the U.S. Park Police, who claimed that it violated the permit which requires constant movement at least three feet from the White House fence and did not allow the participants to speak from a platform directly in front of the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue.

But the police never actually moved in on the peaceful protest. Tourists ignored the demonstrators as they took pictures of the White House. Menachem Rosensaft, chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, told the rally, “Today we say to President Reagan, one last time, that if he insists on going to Bitburg we do not want him at Bergen-Belsen.”

Reagan scheduled a visit to the former concentration camp site after the uproar over his plan to go to Bitburg where members of the Waffen SS are buried along with other German war dead. But Rosensaft said today that if the President goes to the German military cemetery “his presence at Bergen-Belsen would violate the sanctity of the mass graves.”

Rosensaft said he would lead a group of survivors and children of survivors in a demonstration outside Bergen-Belsen when the President visits there Sunday “to let him know how deeply and permanently he has offended us. Our demonstration will be peaceful, nonviolent and dignified ….”

American Jewish organizations are planning a protest demonstration Sunday at Arlington National Cemetery instead of Lafayette Park across from the White House where it was originally to have been held. But Ackerman told the JTA that today’s demonstration was held as one last chance before Reagan leaves “to bring the President to his senses.”

However, Reagan told West European television reporters yesterday that the cemetery visit is “morally right” and “the final word has been spoken as far as I am concerned.” He added that “All of those in that cemetery have long since met the supreme judge of right and wrong.”

Rosensaft said today that this “rationale is so offensive as to defy credibility. By the same logic he (Reagan) might just as well lay his wreath at Berchtesgaden. For God’s sake, isn’t there any limit to this outrage?” Berchtesgaden, in Bavaria, near the Austrian border, was Hitler’s home during the period of the Third Reich.


Two Holocaust survivors also spoke: Harriet Steinhorn of Washington, D. C., a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and Norbert Wollheim of New York, a survivor of Auschwitz.

Steinhorn said she had “mixed emotions” because she considers the U.S. a “wonderful country” that enabled the Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives. But she was “terribly saddened” by the President’s decision to go to Bitburg. She said the survivors must see to it that future generations will remember the Holocaust so it can never happen again.

Calling the Bitburg visit a “moral travesty,” Wollheim declared that “no political game of reconciliation will find us ready to release Germany from its historical responsibilities for the crimes committed by the SS gangsters in the name of the German people, by a government that had been called to its office in a free election.”

Noting that White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan said on Sunday that the President had been “wounded in his heart” by the criticism of his visit, Wollheim declared, “Our hearts are wounded too, not since yesterday but for decades.”

Rep. Robert Edgar (D. Pa.) suggested a possible alternative to Bitburg. He said that an alternative could be a visit to the grave of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-war Chancellor. Edgar said that a ceremony that “recognizes even one individual who participated in the Nazi war crimes denigrates the purpose of the President’s trip and works against reconciliation.”

Rep. Louis Stokes (D. Ohio) said the President should be “big enough” to recognize the “insensitivity” of his visit to the cemetery. He said it would dishonor “the Americans who died in order to liberate the world from a nation of people who put racial superiority above everything.”

Rep. Thomas Anton (D. N. Y.) noted that a World War II veteran in his district asked him recently, “What did the President think we were fighting and dying for?” Edgar stressed that the issue was not one for Jews or veterans but “for all Americans.”

Rep. Jim Moody (D. Wisc.) said that by visiting the Bitburg cemetery, Reagan will give an “unwitting boost” to “race hatred and to revisionist historians who would deny the horrors of the Holocaust.”

Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D. Conn.) asked the President to display “courage” by not going to the cemetery.

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