President Reagan, despite an impassioned plea from Elie Wiesel, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, said he still intends to go through with his plans to lay a wreath at a West German military cemetery. But he also announced that he will visit the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when he goes to Germany next month.
The President’s comments came before he presented a Congressional Gold Medal to Wiesel at a White House ceremony Friday marking Jewish Heritage Week. In accepting the medal, Wiesel said "it belongs to all those who remember what the SS did to their victims."
In his remarks at the ceremony in the White House Roosevelt Room, Reagan did not refer to the week-long controversy over his decision to visit the Bitburg military cemetery where some 2,000 German soldiers, including more than 40 members of the SS, are buried.
Instead, he discussed it at a private meeting in the Oval Office with Wiesel, and Peggy Tishman, President, and Malcolm Hoenlein, director, of the Jewish Community Council of New York, the group that initiated Jewish Heritage Week. Also participating were Vice President George Bush and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan.
The President told the Jewish leaders that when the cemetery was selected, it was not known that SS members were buried there, and that now he could not change the visit because of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s strong request that he go through with it.
However, the White House announced later on Friday that Reagan had spoken by telephone to Kohl. While spokesman Larry Speakes would not give any details of what was said, there was a belief here that if a change came, it would have to be at a German initiative.
Hoenlein said the President also stressed that in his remarks to regional reporters Thursday, in which he said that most of the 2,000 soldiers buried in Bitburg cemetery were 18-year-old boys conscripted into the army and "they were victims just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps," he was not comparing the atrocities suffered by the victims of the Holocaust to soldiers who died in the war. Hoenlein said Reagan meant that all those who died in World War II were victims of the Nazis.
But leaders of major national Jewish organizations continued to express dismay and outrage at what they termed Reagan’s distortion of history and his perversion of language by claiming that the German soldiers and victims of the Holocaust were equal victims.
Statements to this effect were issued by the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, American Jewish Congress, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbinical Assembly, Zionist Organization of America, American Jewish Heritage Committee, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Jewish leaders also continued to urge Reagan not to visit Bitburg cemetery. (See related story, P. 4.)
It was not clear how Reagan determined that most of the soldiers buried in Bitburg cemetery were 18-year-old boys. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one of the SS soldiers buried in the cemetery is SS Staff Sergeant Otto Franz Bengel who was awarded a gold German Cross in the name of Adolf Hitler in 1944 by senior SS officials for killing 10 American soldiers. The Wiesenthal Center said that Bengel was born on October 4,1922 and would have been 23 years old at the time of his death.
Another soldier, Ugen Schuler, who was a member of the Reich Sicherhauptamt, the infamous SS security service, is also buried there, according to the Center. He was born on May II, 1913 and would have been 32 at the time of his death. The Wiesenthal Center said it has begun "a thorough investigation of the background of the SS soldiers buried" in Bitburg cemetery.
At the White House ceremony, Wiesel expressed the "sadness that is in my heart" over the controversy. "I am convinced that you were not aware of the presence of SS graves," he told the President. But Wiesel said now that it is known, "I implore you to do something else … that place is not for you, your place is with the victims."
Wiesel stressed that he does not believe in collective guilt or responsibility and that young Germans today are not responsible for crimes committed by their parents. But he said the President could find another way of expressing reconciliation. He told reporters later that one proposal made was that Reagan could talk to German students.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, spiritual leader of Kehillath Jeshurun in New York City, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that if it were not for the existence of the State of Israel, an American Jew would not be able to make such a statement face to face to a President. He said that 40 years ago a Jew would not have received such a medal and that, if he did, he would not have dared to give the President a lesson in musar (ethics).
Reagan signed a proclamation at the ceremony making the week of April 21 Jewish Heritage Week. He declared that Americans are pledged to "never again" allow the Holocaust to happen, adding that never again is not enough.
He said Americans have demonstrated their support for the survival of the Jewish people in backing Israel and "Americans will never waver in our support." He noted that "with Israel, the United States reached out and saved Ethiopian Jews."
Reagan expressed continued support for Soviet Jewry. "If the Soviet Union truly wants peace, truly wants friendship, it will release Anatoly Shcharansky and free Soviet Jewry."
Reagan added that "We pledge we will never forget that in many places in the world the cancer of anti-Semitism still exists." He said the United States will help bring to justice those responsible for the Holocaust. "We will take action to root out the vestiges of anti-semitism in America," he declared.
In his reply, Wiesel said he was "so grateful for Reagan being a friend of the Jewish people," for trying to help the oppressed Jews of the Soviet Union and for supporting Israel.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.