How Ronald Reagan gave the Nazis a Hechsher

While the mainstream Jewish press and Jewish leaders like Natan Sharansky are singing praises of late President Ronald Reagan and what a good friend he was to the Jewish people, some folks, like my mom, who was education coordinator of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, are left with a very different and less rosy-hued memory of the man they called The Gipper. In the following Jewschool exclusive, Jeanette Friedman takes the recently-deceased Reagan to task for his infamous visit to Bitburg.

Ronald Reagan places a wreath upon a memorial honoring German soldiers,
located within Kolmeshohe Cemetery, where members of the Nazi SS are buried.
Bitburg, West Germany, May 5, 1985.
To my generation, Ronald Reagan was first, a lousy, benign fat cowboy in a stupid Stetson who pushed soap — 20 Mule Team Borax — on TV. Then he became the spokesman for General Electric, and you only knew he was an actor because of some really bad movies they showed on the early and late shows on CBS. They even made a humanoid out of him for the World’s Fair in NY in 1960. I saw it with my own eyes as our egg chairs trundled past it in the House of the Future or whatever the heck it was called.

Then Reagan became governor of California, which most easterners thought was a joke, but it got really scary when he was elected President. The economy was supposed to trickle down, and my family went bankrupt thanks to his high taxes, low income and out of sight interest rates that so stressed the middle class, more people went bankrupt than ever. They did so while waiting for David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, to urinate on their heads.

Economically, it wasn’t until Clinton was elected that we felt any kind of economic relief.

As for Israel, I for the life of me can’t remember anything of real substance about his relationships with Israeli Prime Ministers. That was so long ago, I can barely recall peacetime in the 80’s. Those were the good old days.

But then there was that day in May, 1985, when some genius in the West Wing, Mike Deaver, I think, arranged for Reagan to lay a wreath at the cemetery in a place called Bitburg, where the Waffen SS were buried. The administration tried to bribe Elie Wiesel with a gold medal, so that he wouldn’t call attention to it, but when they gave it to him, he spoke truth to power on national TV and told Reagan that Bitburg was not his place.

The Holocaust survivors had a gathering in Philly just around that time, and the survivors told their children not to go to Germany to protest. Well, many did go anyway, looking for trouble really, and tempting the Germans to crunch their skulls in front of camera crews.

Eleven children of survivors, including me and also including the chairman of the art department at Brooklyn College, Morris Dorsky, a WWII vet and Prof. Henry Friedlander, a survivor teaching in the Judaic Studies Department, got on a plane to Hamburg on a Friday in May. We landed, got nasty stares from the Germans and took a bus to Hannover, where we spent a sleepless night before going to Bergen-Belsen, the camp where most of our parents, including mine, had been incarcerated by the Nazis.

It was our intention to ask Reagan, at his last stop before Bitburg, in this place, this now NATO Base in Germany, not to proceed to Bitburg. Some of us, as infants, had lived in that camp as DPs after the war. We were going to plead with him not to continue on. The CBS cameras were watching us.

We ran into George Schultz’s boys as they headed toward the camp. We took busses to Celle, the railhead from whence our parents marched into the camp, and we followed the same route past neat little houses, whose inhabitants glared at us with hostile eyes veiled by starched lace curtains.

I was walking with Jack Eisner, a Holocaust survivor, and together, we spat on the ground. It made us feel better as we headed toward a park-like place of shared roots and dead bodies. But they wouldn’t let us in. The Germans and the Secret Service had locked the Jews out of Bergen Belsen!

Well, eventually they let us in, but not before our visit to a tiny museum there, where we heard German visitors extolling Hitler. A walk through the concentration camp made it clear that brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, parents, babies, elderly—it made no difference. The mounds were not marked with names. They were marked with numbers. And the man who’d just left was on his way to lay a wreath on the graves of the perpetrators of the genocide of the Jews.

As we survivors, children of survivors and liberators stood together in this remnant of concentration among the mass graves that held our family members, Ronald Reagan ignored us, and ignored truth spoken to power by Elie Wiesel. He went to Bitburg and laid down a wreath that served as a seal of approval on hatred.

Since that day, neo-Nazism has risen to its highest levels since before World War II. Antisemitic incidents in Germany include stabbings of Jews in the streets, and it isn’t getting better.

Ronald Reagan taught us that what our parents prayed for would never happen. Jews would always be targets…not the only targets, but targets, nonetheless.

Will a world leader ever close the Pandora’s Box Ronald Reagan opened in Bitburg? Two days ago, in France, someone carved a swastika on a 12-year-old Jewish girl’s face. I guess not.

—Jeanette Friedman

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