His voice rising to a near-shout and cracking with emotion, Sigmund Strochlitz, a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, last night told an audience that included Cabinet officers, senators and other dignitaries that President Reagan's plan to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery is "mind boggling" and "insensitive."
"Can you really honor the victims of murder and at the same time pay homage to the perpetrators?" said Strochlitz at a reception sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) to raise money for the officially sanctioned U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to be built near the Washington Monument.
"To honor them is to dishonor us!" Strochlitz declared to applause. He called the Nazis "butchers" and noted that members of the infamous German SS are buried at the Bitburg cemetery that Reagan plans to visit.
Dole, who was wounded fighting in Europe in World War II, did not mention Bitburg in his speech, but said he will be "active" in raising money for the museum, which would remind Americans of "events and lessons we should never forget."
Dole slipped out before Strochlitz's passionate condemnation of Reagan's Bitburg visit. When asked about the visit by a reporter, Dole said, "That's his Reagan's judgment, I don't know," and turned away.
Strochlitz and another concentration camp survivor, Miles Lerman, are cochairmen of the committee that has raised $10 million in private contributions toward the $100 million needed for the museum, which is scheduled for completion by 1989. Lerman said it will be "a major statement on the Mall . . . the only national Holocaust museum outside of Yad Vashem in Israel."
President Reagan is honorary chairman of the fund-raising committee -- a circumstance that lent a special tension to last night's reception. No one doubted the president's commitment to commemorating the 6 million Jews and other victims of Nazi horrors, especially now during the April 14-21 "Days of Remembrance" on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps.
But many last night thought Reagan "ill-advised," as it was most often put, to visit the Bitburg cemetery on his May 5-6 trip to West Germany. Nor were many mollified by Tuesday's announcement that Reagan would also visit a Nazi concentration camp.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) received applause when he said "it would be an abomination" for Reagan to visit Bitburg and added, "You cannot correct the impropriety by visiting Dachau."
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said, "The president is not a man with malice. I believe it was a mistake, that he made a terrible error." Lautenberg said he hoped Reagan would hear the chorus of voices, Jewish and non-Jewish, telling him to "Please change your mind."
"It was just a scheduling error. Certainly we're not going to have the president of the free world visit an SS cemetery," said Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.).
"It's a non-negotiable thing," said Mark Talisman, vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, the official government agency that is building the museum. "You can't ask a death camp survivor to explain government leaders bowing their heads at a place of SS graves."
However, Arnost Lustig, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who is now a professor of film and literature at American University, said, "I think it's an extremely generous act to honor the dead . . . I think that he is doing the right thing. I wouldn't go there to Bitburg , but he's a president."
Lustig added that while the SS were criminals, "In spite of that I met in '44 and '45 some SS who behaved decently . . . It's not a rule, it's an exception."
Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) said, "Oh, I'm not horrified. The dead should rest. I don't think he's honoring 30 SS people who lie in a cemetery of 2,000." Boschwitz said he thinks Reagan's "decency shines through in so many ways that I don't believe he's abandoning any of his principles."
Other guests included Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Secretary of the Army Jack Marsh, and many of the 65 members of the Holocaust Memorial Council.
The fund-raising committee is establishing branches in all 50 states.