WASHINGTON — President Reagan, seeking to extricate himself from one of the most embarrassing episodes of his presidency, agreed Friday to visit the Bergen-Belsen death camp in West Germany next month to pay homage to victims and survivors of the Holocaust, but he stuck by plans to visit a German military cemetery as well.
His decision to go to both the site of the Nazi-operated Bergen-Belsen camp northeast of Hanover and the cemetery for German soldiers at Bitburg was announced just minutes after Reagan had listened to an extraordinary appeal from concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel that he stay away from the cemetery, where nearly 50 members of Adolf Hitler's elite Waffen SS lie among the more than 1,800 World War II dead.
"That place, Mr. President, is not your place," Wiesel told Reagan in a dramatic face-to-face meeting during a White House ceremony. "Your place is with the victims of the SS."
Conferred with Kohl
The Bergen-Belsen visit was added to the schedule for the President's European trip, which will include an economic summit meeting with Allied leaders in Bonn, after he conferred with White House aide Michael K. Deaver and had a 20-minute telephone conversation with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the revised schedule calls for the President and Kohl to fly from Bonn to Hanover on the morning of May 5, then take a helicopter to Bergen-Belsen, where they will visit grave sites, place a wreath at a monument to the camp's victims and participate in brief ceremonies with "religious overtones."
Short Visit Planned
They will then fly to the U.S. air base at Bitburg and go to the cemetery for a 20-minute visit. Although the graves of the SS members are scattered among those of regular soldiers, Speakes said efforts will be made to assure that ceremonies there take place as far as possible from the SS graves.
Reagan's announced plans to visit Bitburg set off one of the angriest controversies of his presidency. It began March 21 when he also disclosed that he had no plans to visit a concentration camp site during the trip. Even as he moved Thursday to find a way to disentangle himself, he added new impetus to the furor by saying that German soldiers buried in the cemetery were "victims of Nazism just as surely as the victims of concentration camps."
"I see nothing wrong," Reagan told a group of editors and broadcasters at the White House on Thursday, "with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis."
Before the remark, the decision to go to the cemetery had already produced outcries from Jewish organizations across the country and a petition signed by 53 members of the Senate asking him not to visit the cemetery. It was not clear whether Friday's decision to add Bergen-Belsen to his itinerary would end the controversy.
The unusual meeting between the President and Wiesel came moments after Reagan had signed a proclamation marking Jewish Heritage Week and had presented Wiesel the Congressional Gold Medal, honoring his writing and teaching about the Holocaust.
Though Reagan made no reference to the controversy in his remarks to members of Congress, the Cabinet, and representatives of major Jewish organizations at the ceremony, Wiesel gently lectured the President on trip plans and pleaded with him to cancel the visit to the cemetery.
Wiesel said he recognizes that Reagan is "a friend of the Jewish people."
But, he said: "I am convinced . . . that you were not aware of the presence of the SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we all are aware. May I, Mr. President, if it's possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.
Political, Strategic Reasons
"Oh, we know there are political and strategic reasons. 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," Weisel said. "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.
"Mr. President, there was a degree of suffering and loneliness in the concentration camps that defies imagination. 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 (Josef) Mengele and his selections. Terror, fear, isolation, torture, gas chambers, flames, flames rising to the heavens."
Reagan and Wiesel met in the President's office for 26 minutes before the ceremony, and Reagan told him of his decision to go ahead with the Bitburg visit and to add the ceremony at Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp where a typhus epidemic was killing 500 inmates a day when it was liberated by the British Army in April, 1945.
At the time of the liberation, British troops found 10,000 unburied corpses, and in the immediate aftermath 13,000 more inmates died of disease, malnutrition and the effects of torture.
The visit to Bitburg has also been criticized by members of Congress and others because many of the SS troops buried there were members of a Panzer division charged with massacring American prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.