In a ceremony officially called a "tribute to America's defenders and liberators," about 600 Jews, World War II veterans and their families gathered at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday to express disfavor with President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg Cemetery in West Germany.
Some said they came because they were angry, some because they were sad and others because they did not know any other way to express their discomfort and concern that Reagan's much-criticized visit "honored the wrong soldiers."
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, an organizer of the event, said the ceremony served as a "response" to Reagan's visit. He said organizers could not label it as a protest because the Pentagon does not allow protests at the cemetery.
The ceremony, approved by military officials on Tuesday, was organized quickly to coincide with the Bitburg ceremony yesterday. More than two dozen similar demonstrations, sponsored by a coalition of religious and veterans groups, were held across the country.
Holocaust survivor Benjamin Meed said in a speech at the Arlington event that Reagan's visit to the cemetery in West Germany was an attempt to obscure German "moral" responsibility for the death of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis. "The Nazis did not operate in a vacuum," said Meed, president of the American Gathering and Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
"While there were exceptions . . . the German nation was willingly mobilized to carry out the Nazi policies and therefore shares in the moral responsibility for the destruction they brought," said Meed.
"The image of an American president, however well-intentioned, at a German cemetery where soldiers were buried, including Nazi SS elite officers and concentration camp guards, sends the wrong signals to the world. It says to future generations: 'All these men were the same; all were engaged in an honorable struggle.' "
Many in the audience wore yarmulkes, or Jewish skullcaps, and sat on the lawn on a hilltop overlooking thousands of graves.
The event was marked by pomp and regalia. A retired soldier played "Taps," the U.S. Army Band played the national anthem and several military tunes, and the colors of infantries and divisions that helped to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were presented.