The German Embassy in Israel is planning a memorial ceremony next month - and not for the first time, according to the embassy's military attache - for Germans killed while serving in the army of the Third Reich, including those in SS units. On November 17, at the the cemetery for World War I soldiers adjacent to the Holy Family hospital in Nazareth, two German priests will give speeches and lay wreathes.
Invitations to the ceremony and the following "small reception," signed by the military attache Colonel Ernst Elbers, were distributed last week. The Israel Defense Forces are not involved in the event and its representatives have not been invited. Invitations were sent to senior reserve officers who are involved in research of World War I who assumed the event - at the recently renovated site - would be dedicated exclusively to that war. They were shocked to discover that they are called to honor the memory of "the fallen and missing servicemen in both world wars" who served in the German army.
One of the invitees, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yigal Shefi, who teaches military history at Tel Aviv University and is an executive member of the association for military history, called Elbers' office in protest on Friday and announced his refusal to take part in an event honoring the Wehrmacht and other forces of the Nazi regime.
In response to a question, Elbers said similar events are held annually in Germany and sponsored by its missions throughout the world on the memorial day (Sunday, November 3) for war casualties "and victims of hatred, persecution and racism."
He indicated that the embassy held previous memorial ceremonies for soldiers in the Nazis' service, but privately and without drawing Israeli attention. Elbers expressed displeasure that the invitations to Israelis this year led to the event's exposure and negative responses.
Elbers said he learned from going through the files of his predecessors in the military attache's office in Tel Aviv that the invitations were not uniform in their wording - in certain years they spoke of World War I only, and in others of both world wars. The usual invitees to the event are the representatives in Israel of the states which took part, on both sides, in World War II including Britain, Australia, France, Russia and the heirs of the dismantled Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. "Four or five" German soldiers from World War II, including Nazi spies executed by the British authorities in Palestine, are buried in the British military cemetery in Ramle.
Elbers said it is clear to him why the IDF refrains from taking part in the German ceremony, in contrast to its involvement - including honorary salvos - at the Ramle ceremony in memory of the British soldiers, many of whom were Jewish residents who joined the British Brigade and other units. The British ceremony is held on November 11, the cease-fire day of World War I.
But Elbers takes exception to viewing the ceremony in Nazareth as a graver edition, due to the Israeli context, of the controversy aroused in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan's visit to Bittburg. In the German cemetery in Bittburg, Allied soldiers and Waffen SS soldiers were buried in nearby plots. Reagan's critics denounced the clumsy effort, dictated by Cold War needs, to treat both sides in World War II alike.
Elbers was asked about insensitivity in holding such a ceremony in Israel, both because Israel is a state of Holocaust survivors and relatives of its victims, and because the German army's Africa corps in 1942 was about to occupy Palestine and bring an end to the Jewish settlement in it. According to the logic of the ceremony, the military attache was told, Israelis are being asked to honor the memory of Field Marshal Rommel because he died in the war and, even more absurd, to honor the memory of Hitler himself, who committed suicide before the end of the war.
Elbers, who is posted in Tel Aviv for only about a year, defended his government's commemoration policy with an obstinacy not devoid of the familiar tone of an officer fulfilling orders. He took pains to note that he himself was born after the war, and two of his uncles, whom he did not know, fell on the front. No, emphasized Colonel Elbers, war criminals and Hitler are not included in the list of soldiers. And whom does he define as "a war criminal" - only those put on trial in Nuremburg and convicted in other courts?
No, others too, but not everyone who served in the SS, because "among the slain soldiers in the battles were 17-year-old boys who were conscripted against their will to the Waffen SS toward the end of the war."
The memorial ceremony is intended to symbolize "reconciliation," said Elbers. One of his innovative contributions to this reconciliation, in speaking to an Israeli audience, is the comment that in his opinion "there is no point in dividing the dead into `good' dead and `bad' dead."
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