President Reagan confronted the tragedy of the Holocaust and a dilemma of diplomacy yesterday as author and death-camp survivor Elie Wiesel implored him at a White House ceremony not to lay a wreath at graves of Nazi soldiers.
"That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS," Wiesel told Reagan, who listened with a look of anguish.
In a moment of emotion and drama, Wiesel accepted from Reagan the Congressional Gold Medal for his works that record the concentration camps' horrors. Then he appealed to Reagan "to do something else" rather than visit the Bitburg military cemetery where some of Hitler's SS troops are buried. Later, the White House announced that Reagan had rejected Wiesel's appeal. Officials said the president plans to visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp site for 40 minutes May 5 as part of his itinerary in West Germany and lay a wreath at Bitburg later that day in a 20-minute visit.
In a private Oval Office meeting before yesterday's ceremony, Reagan told Wiesel that he could not abandon plans to lay a wreath at the cemetery because of "relations with Germany," Wiesel said.
Hours before, U.S. officials asked West Germany to find alternative sites to the cemetery, but officials in Bonn felt committed to the Bitburg visit, a White House official said.
Reagan spoke by telephone yesterday with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and told him he would honor his agreement to visit Bitburg, the White House official said. The two also agreed that Reagan and Kohl would visit the concentration camp together to "honor the victims of Nazism."
Reagan stirred renewed criticism from Jewish groups Thursday when he said soldiers buried at Bitburg were Nazi victims "just as surely as" those of the concentration camps. Yesterday, Wiesel said that the president "doesn't believe that."
"He did not apologize. He explained privately that it is not what he believes," Wiesel said. "Just the opposite. He knows very well, he said, that we went through what nobody has ever gone through, and furthermore nobody could even imagine what we went through."
In brief remarks before awarding the medal to Wiesel, Reagan skirted the cemetery controversy and vowed that the United States would "never again" allow such genocide as the Nazi Holocaust.
He promised unwavering U.S. support of Israel, recalled the recent airlift of Jews from drought-ravaged Ethiopia and vowed to "never cease" efforts to win freedom for Soviet Jews suffering from "persecution, intimidation and imprisonment within Soviet borders."
The ceremony, at which Reagan honored Wiesel and signed a proclamation marking Jewish Heritage Week, was the climax of a week of intensifying protests from Jewish and veterans groups about Reagan's plans to visit Bitburg to celebrate a theme of "reconciliation" on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
The cemetery includes the bodies of about 50 members of Hitler's SS among about 2,000 German war dead. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said officials are attempting to confine Reagan's visit to an area of the cemetery away from the SS graves.
Wiesel, a preeminent author and historian who survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, used the ceremony to deliver an intensely personal lecture to the president, who was seated near him before a fireplace in the White House room named for presidents Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"I wouldn't be the person I am, and you wouldn't respect me for what I am, if I were not to tell you also of the sadness that is in my heart for what happened during the last week," Wiesel said.
"I belong to a traumatized generation. And to us, as to you, symbols are important. And furthermore, following our ancient tradition -- and we are speaking about Jewish heritage -- our tradition commands us 'to speak truth to power,' " he said.
Wiesel said he is "convinced" that Reagan was not aware earlier that SS troops are buried at Bitburg and added, "But now we all are aware."
After imploring Reagan to find another site to visit, he acknowledged that "there are political and strategic reasons" for going.
"But this issue, as all issues related to that awesome event, transcends politics and diplomacy. The issue here is not politics, but good and evil. And we must never confuse them, for I have seen the SS at work, and I have seen their victims. They were my friends. They were my parents," Wiesel said.
"Cut off from the world with no refuge anywhere, sons watched helplessly their fathers being beaten to death. Mothers watched their children die of hunger. And then there was Dr. Josef Mengele and his selections of who would live or die , terror, fear, isolation, torture, gas chambers, flames, flames rising to the heavens."
Later, Wiesel, who described himself as a "storyteller," said the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, of which he is chairman, is considering a resolution that all of its members resign to protest the Bitburg visit. He said he will call a meeting to decide if they should quit before or after Reagan's European visit.
During the ceremony, Wiesel noted that Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne, sitting near Reagan, was a Holocaust survivor. The president softly asked Rosenne if he was, and the ambassador nodded yes.
Afterward, New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, one of the invited guests, embraced Wiesel, who recalled "an extraordinary reportage about the persecution of Jews" written by Rosenthal after a visit to Auschwitz