Obama to visit D-Day site in France on 65th anniversary

McClatchy NewspapersJune 5, 2009 

PARIS — President Barack Obama will visit the American cemetery and memorial in the French region of Normandy on Saturday to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day and the U.S. role in ending the Nazi occupation of Europe.

His D-Day observation will follow an emotional tour Friday of a German concentration camp that his great-uncle helped liberate. The president also spent two hours Friday with U.S. troops at the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated.

The Allies' invasion of Normandy marked "the beginning of the end of World War II, and many of the veterans of World War II are in the sunset of their years," Obama said Friday in Dresden, where he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met before touring the Buchenwald concentration camp. "And so having an opportunity to acknowledge them once again and the sacrifices they made was very important to me."

Obama will meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy before the D-Day event, which British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also will attend.

American, British, Canadian and Free French forces landed on four beaches on the French coast on June 6, 1944, to begin the liberation of Europe.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel, includes the graves of 9,387 U.S. soldiers who died in connection with the invasion, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Merkel on Thursday noted the symbolism of Obama's visit to Dresden, a city that was destroyed by Allied bombing and rebuilt after German reunification, as well as to Buchenwald, a forced labor camp where Nazis held an estimated quarter-million, about one in five of whom died there.

Obama's stops in Europe follow his speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt, on improving U.S.-Muslim relations and seeking peace in the Middle East, and the trip to Buchenwald allowed him to expand on the theme.

In Cairo, he spoke of an imperative for Israelis to cease settlements in the West Bank and to treat Palestinians humanely. At the same time, he called on all critics, Muslim or otherwise, to recognize Israel's legitimacy and to accept as indisputable the history of the Holocaust, a retort to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in particular.

"To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened," he reiterated at Buchenwald, calling that stance "baseless and ignorant and hateful" and saying that "this place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."

"These sights have not lost their horror with the passage of time," Obama said.

Some Jews bristled at Obama's sympathetic posture toward Palestinians in Cairo, and his suggestion that Iran might have some legitimate claim to civilian nuclear energy.

However, his gesture Friday as the first sitting American president to tour the Buchenwald camp, and the imagery of his walking the grounds with camp survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, whose father died there, could offset their resentment.

Obama recalled how his great-uncle Charlie Payne was a young soldier in the 89th Infantry Division. He was among the first Americans to reach a concentration camp, and he helped liberate a Buchenwald sub-camp called Ohrdruf.

Obama said that his uncle came home in shock and isolation. "It's understandable that someone who witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock," the president said.

His Uncle Charlie will be at Normandy on Saturday, and Obama will speak to assembled World War II veterans there.

At Buchenwald, where 56,000 died, the watchtower clock is permanently set at 3:15, the time the camp was liberated on April 11, 1945. A memorial plaque at the site is kept heated to the temperature of the human body.

"To be able to come and reflect on this very difficult history and to not only reflect on the dangers of when peoples are in conflict and not acknowledging a common humanity, but also to celebrate how out of that tragedy you now have a unified Europe," Obama said, "a Germany that is a very close ally of Israel, and the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness and hope, all those things, I think, are part of why this visit is very important to me."

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