President Reagan responded yesterday to protests against his scheduled visit to a German military cemetery by sending an advance team to West Germany with instructions to find a "suitable site" that he might visit in honor of Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, White House officials said.
These officials said Reagan probably will reverse his decision not to visit a concentration camp site while in Germany to attend the seven-nation economic summit the first week of May. But they said a visit to a synagogue or a Jewish cemetery remains an alternative.
Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes announced that White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan had directed Michael K. Deaver, deputy chief of staff, and William Henkel, director of presidential advance, to fly immediately to West Germany and inspect sites that could be added to Reagan's itinerary, including World War II concentration camps.
Speakes said Reagan will stay with his plan to lay a wreath in the German military cemetery in Bitburg May 5, despite protests from Jewish groups and U.S. war veterans. About 2,000 German soldiers are buried there, including some 30 Waffen SS troops killed near the end of the war.
Asked whether it would be fair to say that Deaver's trip was "in response to the outrage expressed by the Jewish groups and the concern expressed by the veterans groups" over the visit to the cemetery, Speakes replied: "It would be fair to do, yes."
In New York yesterday, members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council met at Hebrew Union College and sent a telegram to Reagan expressing "deep anguish" over the cemetery visit and asking Reagan to cancel it.
Elie Wiesel, chairman of the council and a Holocaust survivor, said council members "do not want a trade-off" under which Reagan would visit the German cemetery while adding a stop at a concentration camp site or synagogue to his itinerary.
But White House officials made it clear that Reagan has no intention of dropping Bitburg from his schedule. Speakes said Reagan sees the ceremony visit as "an opportunity to demonstrate 40 years of peace in Europe and a mood of reconciliation that we wish to emphasize on the trip."
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sent Reagan a letter yesterday saying that he approves of the president's current itinerary but suggesting that other events might be added, including a visit to Dachau or some other concentration camp site, officials said.
In a March 21 news conference, before the cemetery visit was announced, Reagan said Kohl had wanted an observance of the "peace and friendship" that now exists between the United States and West Germany. The president suggested then that he was not including a concentration camp in his itinerary because it would offend the Kohl government.
Reagan defended his decision by saying that it would be a mistake to observe the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis by "reawakening the memories and so forth, and the passions of the time . . . ."
In an April 1 interview, Reagan said that "we should never forget the Holocaust" but added that it would be "out of line" for him to emphasize Nazi war crimes while he was a guest in West Germany.
The telegram sent to Reagan by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council 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 the memory of the Holocaust alive that we have been so keenly disturbed by your plans."
White House officials said the cemetery stop has been on Reagan's schedule since early February at the request of the West German government. Reagan approved the schedule in March and decided last week to keep the cemetery visit on his itinerary, officials said.
One official said that Deaver, who has been privately criticized by White House colleagues for political insensitivity in agreeing to the cemetery stop, was carrying out the expressed wishes of Reagan and the Kohl government. Reagan repeatedly ruled out a concentration camp stop, that official said.
Yesterday, after the Kohl letter was received, Deaver met with Regan to discuss schedule alternatives. They then talked about it with Reagan in the Oval Office and agreed that Deaver should return to West Germany and inspect prospective additions to the schedule acceptable to the Kohl government.
In New York, Wiesel focused on the presence of SS tombstones in the cemetery, saying: "This is beyond what we could imagine. These are war criminals."
But Wiesel said he will accept the Congressional Gold Medal he is scheduled to receive Friday from Reagan because it is "a generous gift" awarded him by unanimous vote of Congress.