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Reagan honors war dead in visits to Bergen-Belsen, Bitburg cemetery

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Posted 11 May 2005 - 07:10 PM

By Judy Sarasohn, S&S staff writer
European edition, Tuesday, May 7, 1985

BITBURG, Germany ? President Reagan honored Jewish victims of the Holocaust and German war dead Sunday in his effort to celebrate 40 years of peace between the United States and Germany despite protests from Jewish and American veterans' groups.

Reagan, with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl by his side, laid a wreath at the military cemetery In Bitburg, where 49 Waffen SS soldiers are buried among 2,000 German war dead from two world wars.

Police in riot gear charged into a group of Jewish demonstrators who surged forward as they waited for Reagan's return from the Kolmeshoehe cemetery.

"Never again," chanted the demonstrators, many of them wearing yarmulkes and yellow stars similar to those Jews were forced to wear during Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

No arrests were made among the 200 Jews and their supporters, many of them students from France, the United States and Germany. The scuffle with about 25 police broke up after five minutes, and no other violence was reported.

Also accompanying Reagan and Kohl were first ladies Nancy Reagan and Hannelore Kohl. The two heads of state were at the cemetery for about seven minutes before going to the Air Force base in Bitburg, where they reviewed American and German troops and addressed about 11.000 U.S. servicemembers, families, civilian workers and Bitburg residents.

"We do not believe in collective guilt. Only God can look into the human heart," Reagan said in a 15-minute speech at the base.

He told of his earlier visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the great sadness he felt "that history could be filled with such waste, destruction and evil."

"But my heart was also lifted by the knowledge that from the ashes has come hope, and that from the terrors of the past we have built 40 years of peace and freedom ? and reconciliation among our nations," he said. "Today I have traveled 220 miles from Bergen-Belsen and I feel 40 years in time."

"I thank you, Mr. President, for the whole German people, and I thank you personally as a friend, for taking a walk with me," Kohl said in a speech. "You are welcome as friend, ally and as guarantor of our security."

Reagan acknowledged the criticism of his visit to the Bitburg cemetery, which has all but overshadowed his participation in the Bonn economic summit.

"Some old wounds have been reopened, and this 1 regret very much because this should be a time of healing," he said. He stressed to the veterans and families who bore painful losses that "our gesture of reconciliation with the German people today in no way minimizes our love and honor for those who fought and died for our country."

To the survivors of the Holocaust, he said, "Many of you are worried that reconciliation means forgetting. I promise you, we will never forget."

Reagan also recalled John F. Kennedy's famous assertion that he was a Berliner, saying, "All freedom-loving people 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.' "

Security seemed tight, as had been the case throughout Reagan's visit to the economic summit in Bonn. The base was closed to ordinary traffic beginning at 6 p.m. Saturday and most cars had to be moved off base.

Members from other Air Force bases in Europe helped provide security, crowd control, communications and media support.

Servicemembers and their families and German guests for the visit and a base picnic had to wear special credentials to enter.

Everyone going to the flight line to witness the ceremonies had to go through metal detectors. Despite the inconvenience and the little time that Reagan would be spending at the base ? he was there less than an hour ? many airmen and their families were still excited about the visit of the man whom one security policeman referred to as "The Boss."

Tech. Sgt. William Jameson, 36th Component Repair Sq, brushed aside the controversy over the Bitburg cemetery, saying, "What counts is that he's here."

Bitburg AB had hoped that Reagan would have time to join a base picnic and a second-grade class had hoped to meet him. But the president's visit was cut short after he added the Bergen-Belsen visit.

Also before going to the concentration camp memorial, Reagan and Kohl made an unscheduled stop in the village of Rhoendorf to lay flowers at the grave of Konrad Adenauer, the first post-World War II chancellor.

After Air Force One touched down at the air base, the Reagans and Kohls were greeted by base and German officials, including Bitburg Mayor Theo Hallet, and signed the Bitburg city guest book. A motorcade then took them to the cemetery.

Reagan and Kohl were joined at the simple and brief ceremony by two former enemies ? 90-year-old retired Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, whose 82nd Airborne Div fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and retired Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, 71, who suffered severe facial injuries when his plane was shot down during the war.

After the two leaders and the two old soldiers laid the floral wreaths, Ridgway and Steinhoff faced each other and shook hands before the 50-foot sandstone tower monument in the cemetery.

Several thousand people, cheering and waving American flags, lined the motorcade's route from the cemetery to the base.

At the air base, the two heads of state reviewed American and German troops. On the flight line were members of the 36th Tac Fighter Wing, the Army's 6th Bn, 56th Air Defense Arty, and German parachutists from the German 8th Div in Bruchsal.

The USAFE band played the German national anthem and the 3rd German Corps band played the American national anthem.

The enthusiastic audience applauded both Reagan's and Kohl's speeches. They waved German and American flags. After the American anthem was played, the crowd started to cheer as if at a football game, but quickly quieted down to honor the German anthem.

There was a flyover by 16 U.S. and German aircraft.

Although his visit was cut short, Reagan had a few personal words in his speech for the people of the air base: "I just want to say that we know that, even with such wonderful hosts, your job is not an easy one. You serve around the clock, far from home, always ready to defend freedom. We are grateful and we're very proud of you."

He told the Bitburgers that "you make us feel very welcome."

Reagan also recounted a story about German and American soldiers having a brief and private armistice one night during the Battle of the Bulge when a German woman fed the group. "Those boys reconciled briefly in the midst of war. Surely, we allies in peacetime should honor the reconciliation of the last 40 years."

The White House said the story came from an article in the January 1973 edition of Reader's Digest.

Ending his speech, Reagan said that "with the lessons of the past firmly in our minds, we have turned a new, brighter page in history ... On this 40th anniversary of World War II, we mark the day when the hate, the evil and the obscenities ended, and we commemorate the rekindling of the democratic spirit in Germany."

He said there was much to make the world hopeful on this anniversary with the light of a "new dawn of freedom sweeping the globe."

"Together let us gather in that light and walk out of the shadow and let us live in peace

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