West German President Richard von Weizsaecker began a rare state visit to Israel Tuesday with a somber tribute to the 6 million Jewish victims of Nazi Germany.
Hours after arriving, Weizsaecker and his wife, Marianne, were ushered into the cavernous Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
The heavy, black wrought-iron doors were closed behind them and, with the monument’s director, Yitzhak Arad, they peered through semi-darkness--illuminated only by a flickering eternal flame--at plaques laid in the ground that bore the names of Nazi camps.
“Dachau,” “Bergen-Belsen,” “Mathausen,” “Treblinka” and “Auschwitz” were some of the names viewed by West Germany’s titular leader, who is highly regarded in Israel for his statements about German moral responsibility for the past.
On his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport earlier in the day, Weizsaecker said: “The past cannot be wiped out. The more openly we face the truth, the freer we are to meet present-day challenges.”
He was greeted on arrival for this first state visit to Israel by a West German president by his Israeli counterpart, Chaim Herzog. Although Weizsaecker’s visit is the first by a head of state, it is not the first by a West German leader. Willy Brandt paid a visit to Israel in June, 1973--following his dramatic earlier trip to the Warsaw Ghetto, where he sought forgiveness for modern Germany for Nazi atrocities and worked to heal the wounds inflicted on the Jewish people by Germans.
On Tuesday, Herzog described a speech by Weizsaecker about German historical responsibilities, made on May 8 to the Bonn Parliament on the 40th anniversary of the end of the World War II, as “one of the most impressive documents of our age.”
Weizsaecker’s airport arrival was accompanied by the rare playing at Israel’s airport of the German national anthem while the red, black and gold banner of West Germany flew in central Jerusalem.
A group of about 50 members of a right-wing youth movement demonstrated outside Yad Vashem against the visitor, saying they did not oppose him personally but were against ties with Germany.
At the memorial, Weizsaecker was introduced to Anny Kreddig, a non-Jewish Berliner, who, with her late husband, Walter, was honored Tuesday for hiding and aiding Jews in Berlin during the war.
The president was given a full honor-guard welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport. Among Cabinet ministers who lined up to shake his hand were right-wingers of the Herut party, the main faction of Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud Bloc, who in the past have refused to greet German leaders.
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