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Obama visits past, appeals for future

At Buchenwald, a plea for peace.

BUCHENWALD, Germany - President Obama drew on the grim backdrop of a Nazi concentration camp and the moral authority of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel yesterday to denounce "the spread of evil" based on ethnic hatred, and called on both Israelis and Palestinians to make "difficult compromises" to achieve a lasting peace.

Walking among barbed-wire fences and foreboding watchtowers a day after his call for a new relationship between the United States and the Muslim world, Obama turned his attention to a dark and disturbing chapter of European history: the extermination of six million Jews.

Obama, whose great-uncle was part of an Army unit that helped liberate one of Buchenwald's sub-camps, toured the site with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Wiesel, who was imprisoned at Buchenwald as a teenager and painfully recalled lying in a triple-decker bunk one night as his father died of starvation and disease a few feet away.

"He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were," said Wiesel, now 80. "And when he died, I was there, but I was not there."

After joining the president in placing white roses at two memorials, Wiesel questioned how a world that has borne witness to such destruction could continue to perpetuate it.

"Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia," Wiesel said. "Enough going to cemeteries, enough weeping for orphans. It's enough. There must come a moment - a moment of bringing people together."

During his remarks on Islam in Cairo, Egypt, a day earlier, Obama called the Holocaust part of "a tragic history that cannot be denied" and a reminder of the importance of the modern state of Israel. He said those who would question the enormous loss of Jewish life at Nazi hands - an implicit reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a frequent Holocaust denier - were obstacles to Middle East peace.

But yesterday Obama immersed himself more deeply in the emotional and symbolic aspects of what in Hebrew is called the Shoah.

He greeted survivors of the camp as well as the German volunteers who maintain it as a memorial site, saw the ovens of the crematorium, and examined the foundation stones of the barracks where tens of thousands were held in what he described as "the most unimaginable conditions."

"More than half a century later, our grief and our outrage about what happened have not diminished," Obama said. "This place teaches us that we must be ever-vigilant about the spread of evil in our own times."

Again appearing to refer to Ahmadinejad without using his name, Obama described how Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the horror of the Nazi camps to be fully documented so that no one would ever be able to forget what unfolded there.

"We know this work is not yet finished," Obama said. "To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened - a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."

In addition to Merkel and Wiesel, the president was accompanied at Buchenwald by Bertrand Herz, another former camp inmate, who heads the international committee of Buchenwald survivors.

After Obama left the camp, he headed for an Army hospital where he visited U.S. soldiers.

Earlier in the day, Obama and Merkel held private talks in Dresden, a city destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II and rebuilt mostly after the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War.

Obama told reporters afterward that he would seek "confidence-building measures" from the Israelis and Palestinians when his special envoy George Mitchell visits the Middle East next week, hoping to build on the firm call for a new peace process he made Thursday in Cairo.

"The moment is now for what many of us know to be the truth," Obama said. "Ultimately, the United States cannot impose peace on the parties. . . . Yesterday was just a speech, and it does not replace the hard work that needs to be done."

Obama said he would like to see Palestinians improve security conditions, end corruption, and move against anti-Israeli incitement, while Israel should halt settlement construction, improve the flow of reconstruction aid to the Gaza Strip, and allow greater Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

Merkel and Obama said they also discussed Iran's nuclear program and the steps each country has taken to shore up the world's economy. Obama said there were signs the economy has stabilized on "both sides of the Atlantic" but acknowledged that more needed to be done.

Asked about the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama said he did not ask Merkel for "hard commitments nor did she offer hard commitments" to take any of the roughly 240 detainees.

Merkel said the German Interior Ministry was holding "very intensive discussions" with U.S. officials on the subject. European leaders have questioned why they should take any detainees from the prison that Obama plans to shutter by Jan. 22, given that Congress has stripped funds for its closure and lawmakers refuse to take prisoners in U.S. jails.

Obama's stop in Germany begins two days of commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy, France, where he will travel today.

Merkel said it was "deeply moving" to see a U.S. president visit Buchenwald. She, like Obama, cast the visit as a hopeful one. "We are going there after Germany has been reunited, after Europe has been reunited," Merkel said.

Read the remarks

of Obama and Wiesel via http://go.philly.


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