While President Reagan visits the graves of German military war dead Sunday in Bitburg, West Germany, Orange County's Jewish community, along with church leaders, will demonstrate its opposition in a ceremony at Harbor Lawn Cemetery in Costa Mesa.
The ceremony will honor American veterans and mark the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in April, 1945, said Don Shapiro, a spokesman for Jewish War Veterans in Orange County. He called the visit a "misguided action" and added, "I personally wouldn't like to see the President lay a wreath on the grave of any enemy soldier. I wouldn't want him to lay a wreath on the grave of the Japanese soldiers who bombed Pearl Harbor."
Critics Focus on SS Graves
The cemetery contains the graves of some the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) troops, and critics of the visit have focused on this. Cheri Kessner of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, organizers of Sunday's ceremony, said she wouldn't oppose a Reagan visit to the graves of Wermacht (German army) soldiers but finds a visit to burial sites of Hitler's elite SS troops unconscionable, "not only because of all the atrocities they committed in the concentration camps but also for what they did to American soldiers," she said.
As preparations for Sunday's ceremonies continued, the Rev. Robert Schuller chose Thursday to come out with a statement of support for the President. The normally apolitical leader of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove compared those buried at Bitburg to the Russian people during a service marking National Prayer Day.
"They were slaves to a system," he said. "They couldn't escape any more than people behind the Iron Curtain today can escape."
Schuller said he understands the concerns of the Jewish community but urged that it accept the President's actions as a step toward reconciliation with the German people. "We can be a part of that; bridge-builders in a world that's been torn apart," he said. "I'm praying that we can be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Shapiro said that some Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts in Orange County have been invited to participate at the ceremony. Several churches will be represented. Similar observances will be held at other cemeteries around the nation, including Riverside, San Francisco and San Diego. Some Jewish religious leaders said they would address the issue in sermons this weekend.
Said Rabbi Mendel Duchman of the Chabad of Irvine Jewish Center, "It will be a sad day to see the President of the United States buckle under pressure. Surely there were other ways to make this point."