For more than 30 years after his liberation from the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany on April 15, 1945, my father, Josef Rosensaft, who headed both the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and the Jewish Committee that administered the displaced persons camp of Bergen-Belsen from 1945 until 1950, was a fierce protector and defender of the memory of all those who had suffered and perished there.
On the first anniversary of the liberation, he dedicated the Jewish monument that has stood ever since as the silent guardian of the Belsen mass graves. When others sought to minimize, if not ignore, the Jewish dimension of Belsen, he made sure that Hebrew and Yiddish inscriptions would be centrally featured on the wall of the international monument. Beginning in 1958, he was the moving force behind an 11-year-long and ultimately successful international political and legal fight to prevent the exhumation of 139 French nationals from one of the mass graves lest such disinterment disturb the remains of the thousands buried there anonymously. Again and again, he came back to Belsen to recite Kaddish, the Hebrew mourner’s prayer, keeping his vow to the dead of Belsen that they would not be abandoned on the soil where they had been murdered.
On May 5, 1985, almost 10 years after my father’s death, I stood beside the Jewish monument to denounce a desecration of memory that had just taken place at Belsen. Less than half an hour earlier, President Ronald Reagan and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had delivered speeches before leaving for the Kolmeshoehe military cemetery near the city of Bitburg in western Germany where they would pay tribute to the German soldiers buried there, including 49 members of the Waffen-SS.
In my father’s absence, and in his spirit, I told a protest demonstration made up mostly of sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors that “Reagan and Kohl have embarked on a macabre tour, an obscene package deal, of Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg. Today we say to them that they can either honor the memory of the victims of Belsen or they can honor the SS. They cannot do both.”
Our demonstration was the culmination of a controversy that had been first fomenting and then raging for several months. Initially, when the president’s trip to Germany was being planned, no concentration camp site was included on his itinerary. On Jan. 25, 1985, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that Dachau is something the president doesn’t want to do. Two month later, Reagan himself told us why. At a press conference on March 21, the president said that he wanted to observe the anniversary of the end of World War II as the day when, 40 years ago, peace began and friendship without, to use Reagan’s own term, reawakening inconvenient and unpleasant memories. Moreover, he continued, “I felt that, since the German people have very few alive that remember even the war, and certainly none of them who were adults and participating in any way . . . they have a feeling and a guilt feeling that’s been imposed upon them.”
I was among many who were deeply offended by Reagan’s words. “In 1943, when my parents arrived at Auschwitz, they were in their early 30s,” I wrote in the New York Times on March 30, 1985. “Most of the German guards and doctors who tortured them and sent their families to the gas chambers were their age or younger. Similarly, many of the killers of Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and all the other death camps were in their 20s and 30s when they participated in the annihilation of six million European Jews. Nazi Germany was, after all, youth oriented. Relatively few of these mass murderers died in battle, and only a handful of them were executed for their crimes after the war. Thus, many of them are today in their 60s and 70s, still alive and well and living in Germany.”
Reagan’s willingness to ignore the Holocaust while in Germany was like manna from heaven for Kohl who, ever since becoming chancellor in 1982, had done everything in his power to rehabilitate and destigmatize as many Germans who had served the Third Reich as possible. In 1983, for example, his government removed the veterans organizations of the Waffen-SS from a list of extremist right-wing groups on which his Ministry of the Interior was required to make an annual report to the Bundestag, the West German parliament. Kohl also blocked repeated demands by the opposition Social Democrats to ban the highly controversial reunions of veterans of the Waffen-SS. Even though the Waffen-SS had been responsible for countless wartime atrocities including the brutal liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and the massacre of American soldiers at Malmedy and had provided guards for virtually all the concentration and death camps, Kohl consistently depicted its members as simple soldiers who had had no alternative but to follow orders.
As far as Kohl was concerned, the Holocaust was perpetrated not by Germans qua Germans but by the Nazis, a subtle distinction to be sure, but a clear distinction nonetheless. On April 25, 1965, German President Heinrich Lübke had declared here at Belsen that, “The phenomenon of National Socialism, cannot be explained by the German national character . . . . What happened did not happen by order or with the will of the German people, but in our name.” Speaking at Belsen 20 years later, on April 21, 1985, Kohl spoke in a similar vein of the Nazi regime’s and the National Socialists’ actions as if only members of the Nazi party had been responsible for the atrocities perpetrated between 1933 and 1945. According to Kohl, Germany bears historical responsibility not for the crimes committed by Germany and Germans but for the crimes of the Nazi tyranny.
When it became known in mid-April of 1985 that not only had Reagan accepted Kohl’s invitation to visit the Bitburg cemetery, but that this cemetery contained the graves of members of the Waffen-SS, the president was faced with ever-increasing outrage on the part of not just American Jews, but members of Congress, American war veterans and editorial writers. Responding to demands that he cancel the Bitburg segment of his German trip, Reagan told a group of regional editors and broadcasters on April 18 that the German soldiers buried there “are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform . . . . They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”
Abraham H. Foxman, then-associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote that he was appalled at the insensitivity, the mechanical equation of victims and victimizers, murdered and murderers.
On April 19, Elie Wiesel publicly urged Reagan to reconsider. “That place, Mr. President,” Wiesel told Reagan at the White House after being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, “is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” The issue, Wiesel said, “is not politics, but good and evil. And we must never confuse them.”
Instead of backing down in any way, the White House then announced that the President would now also go to Bergen-Belsen, thereby drawing a fallacious moral equivalence between Belsen and Bitburg.
Addressing a gathering of thousands of Holocaust survivors and their families in Philadelphia on April 21, I called Reagan’s decision to go through with the Bitburg wreath-laying ceremony a “calculated, deliberate insult to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. . . . Today, let us say to President Reagan clearly and unambiguously that if he insists on going to Bitburg we do not need him and we do not want him in Bergen-Belsen.”
If the president did not cancel his Bitburg visit, it was important, I believed, for him to have to confront survivors and their children at Belsen. Let him pass in front of us there and look into our faces, I said, and perhaps then, at last, he would understand the enormity of the outrage which he is perpetrating. “For heaven’s sake, let him find another cemetery. There must be at least one in all of Germany which does not contain SS men.”
Kohl, meanwhile, made an already bad situation even worse when, speaking in the Bundestag on April 25, he once again sought to exonerate the Waffen-SS and categorically rejected what he called unacceptable collective accusations and distortions of historical facts during the past few days. While he said that he would not venture to judge those who experienced all the horror and barbarity of the Third Reich at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen, he insisted that “we,” presumably referring to all Germans of his and future generations, have neither a moral nor a legal claim to such an attitude.
To our shock, we were then informed that our request to be allowed to hold a peaceful demonstration as Reagan and Kohl entered the memorial site of Bergen-Belsen had been vetoed, not by the German authorities but by the American advance team. Following intense telephone discussions and negotiations with U.S. and German officials, I reached what I considered to be a less than ideal but tolerable compromise with Klaus Becker, the head of government of the regional administrative district responsible for Bergen-Belsen: Becker would provide us with a police escort who would take us past the police barricades to about one kilometer away from Belsen, and then would bring us to the memorial site immediately after Reagan and Kohl had departed by helicopter.
And so it was that a group of about 50 of us stood beside the Jewish monument on May 5, 1985, to reconsecrate the memorial site. Other leaders of the Second Generation movement in our group were Jerzy Warman, Eva Fogelman, Joyce Celnik (now Levine), Rebecca Knaster, Sarah Dukorsky, Tom Teicholz and Ritalynne Brechner from New York as well as Rositta Kenigsberg from Miami, Michael Korenblit from Washington, D.C., Esther Fink of Chicago, Charles Silow and Bernard Kent from Detroit, Stephen Tencer and Jeanette Friedman-Sieradski from New Jersey, and Lee Kagan from Los Angeles.
Speaking on behalf of and to the dead of Belsen, I said that Kohl’s attempt to describe the Waffen-SS as simple soldiers was a perverse rewriting of history, and that Reagan’s comparison of the SS or any German soldiers to the victims of the Holocaust was morally repugnant.
I emphasized that we are committed to genuine reconciliation and friendship with the new Germany of the past 40 years, but we shall never accept or acquiesce in any reconciliation with the Third Reich. And, we shall never tolerate any compromise with evil.
I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder as I concluded my remarks with words that I consider as relevant and applicable today as they were 27 1/2 years ago: “For us it is a matter of conscience. And we swear . . . to the tens of thousands buried here, and to all the other victims of the Holocaust, that we shall forever protect and defend their memory, that we shall never abandon them.”
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, who was born in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen, is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities. This article was adapted from a speech he delivered at Bergen-Belsen on Nov. 30, 2012, on the 60th anniversary of the dedication of that concentration camp’s memorial site.