President Reagan announced yesterday that he would visit the site of a Nazi concentration camp in May but still plans to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery, the decision that has provoked cries of outrage from Jews and American veterans.
Elie Wiesel, noted writer on the World War II Holocaust, said after a White House meeting that he was "still not satisfied" by the president's decision to add a death camp site to his trip.
Wiesel said he found it "still inconceivable" that Reagan would visit the cemetery at Bitburg containing graves of Nazi soldiers, including members of Adolf Hitler's elite Nazi SS, along with World War I veterans. "The SS are a symbol of international crime against the Jewish people, against humanity. It is the SS who killed American war prisoners with their hands tied," he said.
Wiesel and a group of Jewish leaders met with White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, but did not see the president. Wiesel said afterward that Reagan is getting "wrong advice, ill advice" about the trip.
Reagan addressed the subject of his German trip in a speech yesterday to a conference on religious liberty. Reagan said he earlier decided not to visit the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau -- which he described as "one of the sites of the great moral obscenity of that era" -- "because of my mistaken impression that such a visit was outside the official agenda." Reagan said West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had written him recently that "my invitation to visit a concentration camp was, indeed, a part of his planned itinerary."
"So, I have now accepted that invitation, and my staff is in Germany exploring a site that will fit into our schedule there."
Reagan had never previously mentioned the "official agenda" that he cited yesterday. Instead, in a news conference last month and a later interview with The Washington Post, he said he ruled out visiting a concentration camp because he thought it would impose unnecessary guilt feelings on the German population.
White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver met in West Germany yesterday with Horst Teltschik, an aide to Kohl, to make changes in the itinerary of Reagan's May 5-6 visit to West Germany. A government spokesman in Bonn, Peter Boenisch, read a letter from Kohl to Reagan repeating an earlier suggestion that Reagan add a visit to the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich or another "Jewish memorial."
Boenisch said a visit to a synagogue was also under consideration. White House officials said the site preferred by Deaver is the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen Belsen in northwest Germany, which held 55,000 prisoners when it was liberated April 15, 1945. However, the officials said the West German government had made a strong appeal for Reagan to visit Dachau, and no decision had been made as of last night.
On Monday, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles asked Reagan to join 35 other Americans at a commemorative event already scheduled May 6 at the site of the former Bergen Belsen camp. This camp is also to be the site of an April 21 ceremony that Kohl and U.S. Ambassador Arthur Burns are scheduled to attend.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal center, who in the past has praised Reagan's support of ceremonies to commemorate the Holocaust, told the California Assembly Monday that Reagan's decision to visit the German cemetery was "a historic blunder."
Reagan acknowledged yesterday that his decision to visit the cemetery and not a concentration camp "has provoked a storm of controversy."
"My purpose was, and remains, not to reemphasize the crimes of the Third Reich in 12 years of power, but to celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of the German people in 40 years of liberty, freedom, democracy and peace," Reagan said.
"It was to remind the world that since the close of that terrible war, the United States and the Federal Republic have established an historic relationship, not of superpower to satellite, but of sister republics bonded together by common ideals and alliance and partnership," he added.
Reagan said he and Kohl decided to lay a wreath at the cemetery to "cement the 40 years of friendship" between West Germany and the United States. "That's why I accepted the invitation and that's why I'm going to Bitburg," Reagan said, adding that "we must never forget the Holocaust, nor should we ever permit such an atrocity to happen ever again."