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A Solemn Stop At Buchenwald

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President Obama toured a WWII concentration camp in Germany on Thursday. Obama is the first U.S. president to visit the Buchenwald camp. Video by AP

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 6, 2009

BUCHENWALD, Germany, June 5 -- President Obama spent an hour on Friday in silence broken only by a faint breeze, the crunch of shoes on gravel and whispered stories.

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At his side as he walked through a small copse of trees marking the most horrific part of a horrific place were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and author Elie Wiesel, who was imprisoned at Buchenwald as a teenager and who watched his father die within its barbed-wire confines.

When Obama emerged beneath the watchtower at the entrance to the Nazi concentration camp, he spoke about the duty to remember what happened here, implicitly rebuking those -- such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who deny it.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Obama said, had ordered photographs and films made of every Nazi concentration camp that his troops discovered so that denying the Holocaust would be impossible.

"We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished," Obama said. "To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful."

"This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts," he continued, "a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."

Obama's visit to Germany followed a speech a day earlier in Cairo that contained some sharp words for Israel, which he urged to stop building settlements in the territories it has occupied since 1967 and to accept a future Palestinian state. His solemn remarks at Buchenwald appeared aimed at balancing that message, reaffirming his support of Israel and using memories of war to build momentum for peace.

He began in Dresden, a city nearly destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II, and ended at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, where he visited soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Saturday, he is scheduled to travel to Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Allied landing, "the beginning of the end of World War II," as he noted Friday. He intends to use the occasion to pay tribute to veterans of the war, whom he said are reaching "the sunset of their years."

After a meeting Friday morning, Merkel and Obama toured Dresden's Church of Our Lady, a graceful baroque building in the center of the city. The original church was built in the 11th century and collapsed in February 1945 after fierce Allied bombing. For decades, the ruins stood as a reminder of the war. But it was rebuilt in the 1990s following Germany's reunification and became a symbol of the city's revival.

From Dresden, the leaders traveled by helicopter to Buchenwald.

The camp's Main Site, which once held as many as 20,000 prisoners at a time, is bare of trees and slopes down toward a broad, green plane. Just outside a fence of 15-foot-high barbed wire a small forest begins, providing a break from the cool wind under low, slate-gray clouds.


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