Jewish Service at Belsen Camp: Night of Anguish, Symbolism

Times Staff Writer

As President Reagan’s fleet of helicopters circled in lead-gray skies Sunday, Rabbi Avi Weiss watched from behind police lines a mile and a half away and talked of the anguish of the night before, when he was forcibly escorted by German police from the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“It was a moment of tremendous emotion--you can imagine the symbolism of German police taking Jews out of Bergen-Belsen,” he said. “The policeman who took my arm murmured, ‘Will you forgive me?’ and I told him that I could forgive him--but not his countrymen who had killed 6 million of my people.”

Demonstrators of every political hue were spread out along a narrow road through a forest of scrub pine leading to the gates of Bergen-Belsen as the President’s helicopter landed. But none of the demonstrators got closer than half a mile away without an official pass, and about all they could see was the forest around them and the solid line of helmeted police facing them from the opposite side of the road.


It was a young crowd, waving posters and banners expressing opposition to nuclear weapons, to fascism, to Chile’s President Augusto Pinochet, to apartheid in South Africa and to U.S. policy toward Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Members of one group passed out leaflets protesting that “up to this very day not a single former homosexual concentration camp inmate has received any compensation.”

But for Rabbi Weiss, a New Yorker, and a few other Jews who came to see what they could of the Reagan visit, it was the past, not the politics of the present, that mattered.

Weiss and Rabbi Ronald Schwartzberg from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., flew to West Germany on Thursday to conduct a religious service at Bergen-Belsen and to stage a peaceful protest against Reagan’s decision to couple a visit to the German war cemetery at Bitburg with a visit to the site of the concentration camp here, where more than 50,000 Jews, Gypsies and other Holocaust victims died.

“There could have been hundreds. Hundreds wanted to come, but we faced a security problem,” Weiss recounted. “So we walked in with a very small group, and when we left there were non-Jews with us too, 14 of us in all at the end.”

The two Americans, with the other Jews of various nationalities, entered the small but very evocative “documentation center” museum outside the gates of the Bergen-Belsen camp at noon on Friday, to begin an observance of the Jewish Sabbath--sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.


“It was the first time that a Jewish religious ceremony has ever been conducted at the site of Bergen-Belsen,” Weiss said. “You can imagine our emotions as we sang and prayed, looking out across those mounds where so many thousands of our people lie. It was our response to President Reagan and (West German) Chancellor (Helmut) Kohl, who are today trying to extinguish the flame and the memory of the 6 million. We lit the Sabbath candles to say that we shall never forget the memory of those people.

“We sang and we danced, we ate and we slept in a concentration camp and the reason we did so was that our response to death was life. Our response to those who wish to extinguish the flame was to light candles and our presence there was, for me, a statement that in the end, we were victorious.”

Weiss said they conducted an entire 25 hours of strict Sabbath observance in the documentation center.

“We began with prayers, we had our candles, our wine, we had our meals, we stayed up most the night studying and learning and singing. The next morning we read from the scroll of the Torah. People came in to visit the museum, people participated, all kinds of people. We were joined by students and others--Christians, friends.”

At times, he said, there were as many as 20 participating in the Jewish service. But they had been warned by the police that they would have to leave. There were three such warnings in all he said.

“They came in immediately after the Sabbath ended about 9:30 on Saturday evening,” Weiss continued. “There was no violence, but there was tremendous emotion. There were two of them, and the police officer in charge said that ‘we have no arms; we come in peace.’ He said they were under orders to ask us to leave.

“I said we, of course, were without arms. We come in peace and we ask you to permit us to remain through the night to study the Torah, to pray so that when the President of the United States enters this museum we can confront him with all of our moral strength.

“They gave us about five minutes. Then other police came in, one for every participant. We were 14 in all at that time, including five non-Jews. They gripped each of us firmly by the arm and forced us out. We were walked across the parking lot and then they went back and collected our belongings and carried them outside the building and locked the door. We were permitted to return to pick up our things, and we spent the night near here with friends.”

Overall, Weiss blamed Kohl for proposing that Reagan visit Bitburg and Reagan for adding a visit to Bergen-Belsen in the same context and on the same day as the Bitburg cemetery visit. Particular opposition has arisen to Reagan’s visit to the cemetery because 49 members of Adolf Hitler’s elite Waffen SS are buried there.

“My point is that President Reagan is terribly wrong and we are convinced that his decision to visit Bitburg is a desecration of the 6 million,” Weiss said. “I think I speak--not for everyone--but I have never seen such a sense of unanimity amongst our people in saying, ‘Mr. President, if you visit Bitburg, you have no place in Belsen.’ It is just an absolute outrage that one denies the past, and that is what he is doing placing a wreath at a cemetery where SS men lie. He has equated the murderers and the victims.

“I recognize the shame of the U.S. in this affair. But the West German leadership is to blame. The visit to Bitburg evokes remembrances of things past. They are giving honor to the murderers of 6 million Jews. Therefore, the image of the German police taking Jews out of Bergen-Belsen, much as I was in anguish, was appropriate because that, in effect, is what Kohl was doing.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, seemed to agree with Weiss during wreath-laying ceremonies at Luxembourg’s American Military Cemetery.

“Let there be no confusion. Those interred here fought and died for the principles of Judeo-Christian civilization. Those at Bitburg fought to end it,” Hier said.