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In Buchenwald, Obama Targets Holocaust Denial

MARK S. SMITH   06/ 5/09 04:26 AM ET   AP

Buchenwald

DRESDEN, Germany — In a solemn rendezvous with history, President Barack Obama will visit a scene of the 20th century's great European horror to make an urgent point about the fear that still stalks its survivors.

After meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in this city crushed by allied bombing in World War II, Obama was to fly by helicopter Friday to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where an estimated 56,000 people perished. Most were Jews _ worked to death, shot or hanged by Nazi guards.

The visit comes on the eve of commemorations in France of the 65th anniversary of the Allies' D-Day invasion _ and the day after Obama's long-awaited speech to the Muslim world seeking a fresh start in relations with America.

The speech in Cairo included a scathing indictment of those who question the Holocaust. To do so, he said, "is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful."

In a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has expressed doubts that 6 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis and who has urged that Israel be wiped from the map, Obama said, "Threatening Israel with destruction or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews is deeply wrong and only serves to evoke in the minds of the Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve."

The Buchenwald stop _ Obama is the first U.S. president to visit the forced labor camp _ was also personal. A great-uncle helped liberate a nearby satellite camp, Ohrdruf, in early April 1945 just days before other U.S. Army units overran Buchenwald.

"It was full of people," Charlie Payne, now 84, recalled of Ohrdruf by phone from his Chicago home. "The people were in terrible shape, dressed in rags, most of them emaciated. Practically skin and bones."

Ohrdruf no longer stands. But Buchenwald's main gate, crematorium, hospital and two guard towers have been kept as a memorial.

Following the tour, Obama was flying to Landstuhl medical hospital for private visits with U.S. troops recovering from wounds sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he was ending the day in Paris _ reuniting with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, who planned a brief holiday in the City of Light after the Normandy ceremonies.

Iran and the slumping global economy were the main subjects of Obama's meeting with Merkel at a castle in this eastern city on the Elbe River. Merkel's government has worked closely with the Obama administration on so-far-unavailing efforts to get Iran to freeze its nuclear program.

However, the president needed to tread lightly in the talks, since Merkel is campaigning to keep her job in a September election contest with her foreign minister, Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Dresden is a city with its own bitter wartime memories. Starting on the night of Feb. 13, 1945, first British, then American bombers pounded the defenseless and largely non-strategic architectural gem, igniting a firestorm in which 25,000 people died _ and in so doing, creating an enduring controversy.

Aides said Obama did not plan to address the firebombing, and was in Dresden at the invitation of Merkel, who hails from her country's East.

The Normandy observance at the U.S. cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer also was to be a moment for family memories. Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham, came ashore at Omaha Beach six weeks after D-Day. Dunham's older brother Ralph hit Omaha on D-Day plus four.

The president summoned family memories on Thursday in making his plea for understanding to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

Speaking at the main auditorium of Cairo University, Obama, a Christian whose father was a Kenyan Muslim, recalled living with his mother in Jakarta.

"As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk," he reminisced.

Obama said his life's experience has taught him Islam is a religion of peace and justice.

"The enduring faith of over a billion people," he said, "is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few."

___

Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven in Cairo, Melissa Eddy in Berlin and Jochen Wiesigel in Ohrdruf contributed to this report.

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Filed by Rachel Weiner  |