FRANKFURT, West Germany (AP) _ Former Nazi SS soldiers Sunday welcomed a group of U.S. World War II veterans to a controversial reunion and agreed to continue their decade-long friendship despite criticism from Jewish leaders.
As television cameras whirred, 25 veterans of the U.S. 70th Infantry Division and their wives hugged and shook hands at Frankport airport with three veterans of the 6th SS Mountain Division. The two divisions fought each other in the Battle of the Bulge in France near the end of the war.
″This is no official joint reunion or celebration; we’re not trying to create a precedent or a confrontation,″ said Floyd Freeman, a U.S. veteran who organized the Americans’ two-week visit to Germany and France.
″We are just meeting our friends by choice as individuals,″ Freeman said.
The veterans have been meeting annually in the United States and Europe since 1976, but Jewish leaders urged cancellation of this year’s meeting on the grounds that SS units were involved in Nazi atrocities.
In response, the U.S. group called off its traditional get-together with the German veterans at a French cemetery but said they still planned to meet informally in the small Bavarian spa town of Bad Windsheim later this week.
Delyle Omholt, president of the 70th Infantry Association, said he was still puzzled by the adverse publicity.
″This is the only year a fuss has been raised. Maybe it’s the 40th anniversary (of World War II’s end), the memory’s fading and some people want to jog it,″ he said.
″The war is 40 years old; it’s time to put it into history,″ Omholt said. ″We’re here to check out old battlefields, meet friends. We do respect criticism, and that’s why we’re now going to the cemetery alone. We of course do not condone Nazi atrocities.″
Wilhelm Gottenstroeter, director of the SS veterans organization, insisted the annual encounters with former enemies were meant to nurture friendships and ″have nothing to do with politics.″
″We have wanted them to meet our families, learn about Germans. It’s a shame, after we have been meeting for nine years, that we are now being assailed with this collective guilt,″ said Gottenstroeter, whose jacket lapels bore his division pins.
Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal earlier this month cabled the U.S. veterans group urging the meeting be canceled.
″The SS will use it as a sign of reconciliation,″ he wrote. ″Your meeting will become an offense for millions of victims of Nazi oppression.″
Neil Sandberg, a top official in the American Jewish Committee, said last week that the Waffen SS, the military arm of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s elite guard, ″included large amounts of people who ran ... concentration camps.″
Willi Weiler, an SS veteran who greeted the Americans at the airport Sunday, said his division had nothing to do with the death camps and was never accused of atrocities at the Nuremberg war crimes trial in 1946.
Nevertheless, Gottenstroeter said any meetings with the U.S. veterans during their 1985 visit ″will be in private settings to avoid any disputes or trouble.″
Two 40th-anniversary reunions of Waffen SS veterans last May prompted violent street demonstrations outside the meeting places.
Jewish and left-wing groups fiercely protested President Reagan’s visit in May to a German military cemetery where several dozen SS members were buried.
The 70th Division veterans planned Monday to visit the American military cemetery at St. Avold in northeastern France, where they fought the 6th SS Mountain Division.
Omholt said his group’s contact with the ex-SS soldiers started after the brother of a slain 70th Division veteran researched the Battle of the Bulge ″to find out exactly who we had fought.″
″Then he went to Europe and looked up the old German soldiers, and told us we ought to meet them, that they had the other side of the story,″ said Omholt.
″Since then, the Germans have been to America every even-numbered year, and we’ve been in Europe every odd year.″