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Hundreds of Jewish Protestors Express Outrage, Anguish at Reagan and Kohl for Visiting Bitburg

May 6, 1985
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Hundreds of Jewish protestors from the United States, Europe and Israel lined the roads to and from the military cemetery here today to pour out their anguish and outrage at President Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl for honoring the German soldiers of World War II buried there, among them some 50 members of the notorious Waffen SS.

Unlike the scene at Bergen-Belsen earlier in the day where hundreds of other Jewish protestors were removed by police from the concentration camp site hours before Reagan arrived (See separate story), the authorities at Bitburg were lenient. As a gesture of good-will, in fact, the police laid down their clubs and shields.

The demonstrators, who had converged here from Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Israel and all parts of the U.S., most of them young people and students, but many Holocaust survivors as well, were allowed to station themselves along the route taken by the Reagan-Kohl motorcade from the cemetery to the nearby U.S. Air Force base. They gave the police their word that their demonstration would be peaceful, but not that it would be silent.

The ceremony at the small gothic cemetery was very brief. Reagan, accompanied by Kohl and appearing to be in a sombre mood, paused at the entrance while a Germany army bugler sounded an old tune, dating back to World War I and perhaps before — “Once I had a comrade — he is no more.” Reagan then walked up to the 50-foot-high granite war memorial, placed a wreath and shook hands with Col. Count Berthold Schenk von Stauffenberg, co-opted by the Bonn authorities to represent the German army. Earlier, on a television interview, Stauffenberg indicated distaste for the assignment. Stauffenberg’s father was executed by the Nazis for trying to assassinate Hitler.

Reagan arrived at the cemetery by a different route than the one by which he departed. White House aides assured the press — a limited number were allowed inside the cemetery — that the President was well out of earshot of the jeers and shouts by the protestors which were in angry counterpoint to the plaintive notes of the bugler.

But on his way back, passing through the center of Bitburg, the President not only saw but heard the hundreds who cried out against his presence at the cemetery. Using bull horns they chanted, “Ronnie, Ronnie, Why? Why?” Another group picked up the chant: “Why? Why did you forget our dead?”

In the heart of Bitburg, passing through massed demonstrators, Reagan could not help but see a man standing on a railing who shouted at him, loudly and clearly, “Why did you do it? The SS killed my father.” But if he heard this and other expressions of anger, the President gave no sign. He leaned slightly toward the crowd and waved from the window of his car.

Along the route taken by the motorcade were flagpoles every six feet and on each there was a demonstrator who had climbed to the top, among them a member of the Knesset, Uri Tzaban, and the French writer, Marke Halter. A group of Americans led by Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, Dean and Associate Dean respectively of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, left the scene a few minutes before the President passed. Hier said, “I did not want to embarrass the President. As it is, I feel sorry for him for what he had done.”

After the motorcade left the city, the Jewish demonstrators, joined by several North African antiracists, kept up their chanting. Several demonstrators donned yarmulkas and recited Kaddish — the prayer for the dead. All demonstrators dispersed when police threatened them with arrest for blocking traffic.

According to reports by some who witnessed the ceremony at the cemetery, Reagan walked swiftly to his car after placing the wreath without looking at the gravestones or the names engraved on them. But later, addressing U.S. personnel at the Air Force base, he claimed the dates on the gravestones showed that many of the German war dead were youthful conscripts. One died just a week before his 16th birthday, according to the President.


Bitburg is a town of about 12,000. During the battles of World War II it was reduced almost to rubble. But it has been rebuilt, neat, clean, quaint and prosperous-looking — largely because of the 11,000 U.S. servicemen and their families at the nearby base.

The Bitburgers watched today’s events mostly in silence. Those who expressed opinions told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency they were “upset” or “outright angry” at the protests which marred what they saw as “the German-American reconciliation.” They said they understood the need of Jews to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust but insisted this was “neither the time nor the place.”

Most Germans with whom the JTA talked differentiate — as Reagan has done — between the Waffen SS, the combat arm of the Nazi elite corps, and the SS itself which was in charge of the death camps. According to these Germans, the Waffen SS were “just fighting men like all others.” They refuse to argue the matter. The words most often heard here today were: “Let the past remain closed and let the dead lie in peace.”

This is at odds with the feelings of Jews: “Never Forget.”

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