The United States Holocaust Memorial Council met in emergency session today and expressed its “deep anguish” at President Reagan’s planned visit to a German military cemetery during his forthcoming visit to West Germany.
But the Council, by unanimous decision, deferred specific action pending a meeting, requested today, between Council chairman Elie Wiesel and the President. The Council will hold a second meeting, scheduled for Thursday in Washington, to review the situation and for Wiesel to report to them “changes which may be made in the plans.”
While indicating that the cemetery visit “is unacceptable to us,” Wiesel told reporters at a news conference following the Council’s two-hour meeting at the Hebrew Union College that he did not believe Reagan was aware of the preparations by the White House staff for him to visit the cemetery, where some 1,800 German soldiers who died during the Battle of the Bulge and later battles are buried.
The Council, in a statement, expressed its “confidence in the personal integrity of the President and urged him to follow his instincts rather than the tragic advice that resulted in the offensive plans.”
The White House announced last Friday from Santa Barbara where the President was vacationing, that Reagan would lay a wreath at Bitburg cemetery when he visits West Germany next month. The proposed visit was immediately denounced by the American Jewish community whose outrage was shared by other Americans including the American Legion.
According to Wiesel, the cemetery contains the tombstones of members of the SS. “These are and were criminals,” he said. He suggested that the President, in his efforts at reconciliation 40 years after the end of World War II, might visit a tomb of the Unknown Soldier or a university.
Wiesel, added, however, that he viewed a visit to the site of the Dachau concentration camp as a sign of reconciliation. He indicated that the visit to the cemetery, and the Administration’s refusal to have the President visit Dachau, as he had been urged in past weeks, were not linked to one another.
“Whether he goes to Dachau or not is for him to decide,” Wiesel said, adding that it represents more than the “Jewish tragedy” of the Holocaust since many persons killed at Dachau were of various faiths and nationalities.
In the telegram to Reagan, Wiesel said, “It is precisely because you have so impressed us in the past with your deep understanding of the need to keep the meaning and memory of the Holocaust alive that we have been so keenly disturbed by your plans.”
Wiesel told reporters that some members of the Council had urged “extreme” measures in response to Reagan’s planned visit, such as resignation from the Council, while others urged a more moderate position. He said he had been in contact with a “high official” in the White House this morning, although he did not disclose the identity of the official.
Wiesel also sought to separate the controversy over the Bitburg visit from a ceremony this Friday at which Reagan will present the noted author and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald with a commemorative gold medal for his contributions to world peace and human rights. “To reject such a generous gift may be an insult to Congress and the American people,” Wiesel said.
Reagan’s planned visit to Bitburg, meanwhile, drew an angry response as far away as Australia where the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, lsi Leibler, urged the President to “reconsider and abandon” the proposed visit. “We feel obliged to emphasize that unlike previous wars, the struggle against Nazism was not merely a conflict between nations,” Leibler said in a cable to Reagan. “It was a battle against an evil regime which threatened Western civilization itself.”
In urging that Reagan “reconsider” his decision to visit Bitburg and to pay a visit to Dachau, the president of the Workmen’s Circle, Dr. Barnett Zumoff, called on the President to reveal “who has ill advised you. The nation has a right to know and to judge their motives.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman urged the President “to come to his senses and reconsider his decision. ” She said: “By electing to honor Hitler’s soldiers and refusing to visit Dachau, President Reagan leaves the clear impression that Hitler’s war machine is more worthy of commemorating than the suffering of its victims.”
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.