On April 11, 1985, the White House announces that President Reagan will lay a wreath at Bitburg, a German World War II military cemetery, as part of an upcoming European trip. The announcement sparks outrage among many, including American Jewish leaders, when it is revealed that the President has decided not to visit the Dachau concentration camp while in West Germany. Elie Wiesel, the noted author and Holocaust survivor comments, “I cannot believe the President, whom I have seen crying at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony, would visit a German military cemetery and refuse to visit Dachau or any other concentration camp.” (New York Times, April 13, 1985)
The White House defends the visit as part of a theme of reconciliation with Europe that the President will stress as part of his trip. The furor over the trip among American Jews increases in the days following the announcement, when it is revealed that the cemetery also contains the graves of more than 2,000 members of the SS, the units responsible for carrying out the Nazi’s Final Solution plans. Days later, on April 17, while speaking at the Conference on Religious Liberty, President Reagan, in the face of growing opposition, announces that he will also include a visit to a concentration camp as part of his trip. The announcement, which indicates that the visit to Bitburg will still take place, does little to quell the anger among American Jewish leaders and American veteran groups. Wiesel, who is scheduled to receive a Congressional Gold Medal on April 19th, considers refusing the award. Eventually accepting the award, he praises the President for his support of Israel and the cause of Soviet Jewry, but admonishes the President’s decision to visit Bitburg, stating in his remarks, “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 of the sadness in my heart for what happened during the past week…This place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims.”
Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, while critical of the planned visit, does not go as far as Wiesel in criticizing the President. He tells the New York Times on April 30, “When a friend makes a mistake, it is still a mistake. And a friend is still a friend. Mr. Reagan remains a friend, but I haven’t changed my view: I regret this decision.” Peres is more critical of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who proposes the idea of the Bitburg visit. Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who famously opposed Israel accepting reparations from West Germany in the 1950s, states: “President Reagan is a great friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, but in this case, he was ill-advised, and all of us are very sorry about it.”
On May 5, the President first conducts a ceremony in front of a memorial at Bergen-Belsen at which he lays a wreath and states, “Here lie people – Jews – whose death was inflicted for no reason other than their very existence.” The President then departs by helicopter to Bitburg where he delivers a speech focusing on reconciliation between the German and American people. His only reference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust comes when he alludes to John F Kennedy’s famous speech at the Berlin Wall in June 1963, “Twenty-two years ago President John F. Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall and proclaimed that he, too, was a Berliner. Well, today freedom-loving people around the world must say: I am a Berliner. I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism. I am an Afghan, and I am a prisoner of the Gulag. I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam. I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban, and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua. I, too, am a potential victim of totalitarianism.”
The photo shows Reagan laying a wreath at Bitburg on May 5, 1985. Photo Source: Jewish Forward, Getty Images.