In Dresden and Nazi camp, Obama highlights capacity for reconstruction

The president visits the city that bore some of World War II’s heaviest damage, as well as the death camp.

By , Correspondent

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    President Barack Obama observes a moment of silence in front of the gate building at Buchenwald, a former Nazi death camp near Weimar, Germany, Friday.
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A day after President Barack Obama made his appeal in Cairo for peace in the Middle East, he visited two sites in Germany that epitomize war's power to destroy as well as society's ability to rebuild.

Close to Buchenwald concentration camp, where 56,000 people, mostly Jews, died, and home of the newly restored Frauenkirche cathedral, which lay in ruins for decades after World War II, Dresden is one of the world's most powerful symbols of postwar reconciliation and reconstruction, says London-based Alan Russell, chairman of the Dresden Fund, which raised $2 million in recent years to reconstruct the famed church.

After angering many Israelis for a comparison made in his speech Thursday in Cairo of the Holocaust and Israel's occupation of Palestine, the Buchenwald visit also stands out as part of a careful diplomatic balancing act.

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"His visit to Dresden makes the point that in a war, everybody suffers – even those who started it," Mr. Russell says, adding, "Obama shows he wants to turn tragedies into symbols of reconciliation."

Early Friday morning, after a private meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Obama, carrying a white rose, walked the green grass of Buchenwald.

He called the camp the "ultimate rebuke" to Holocaust-deniers, and toured the site with Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who was imprisoned at Buchenwald and whose father died there.

Obama challenged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly questioned the Holocaust, to visit.

Obama's trip also paid tribute to the veterans who ended the Nazi regime and closed the camps, including his great-uncle, Charles Payne, who helped liberate a satellite camp of Buchenwald.

While the president told reporters that his route from Cairo to Dresden – before going on to visit wounded troops at a US military hospital in Germany – was largely about logistics, most here believe Dresden's history played an important role in the choice.

Dresden eagerly awaited Obama

This was Obama's second visit to Germany within weeks. It was only a stopover, with little handshaking, no waving at the crowds, no strolling the streets of the old monuments.

Some Dresdeners were annoyed. This city on the Elbe River has spent millions of euros in recent years on a facelift. Thousands of police blocked the city, and the city's best bakers and chefs had prepared their best.

"So much money thrown out of the window, and he's not even coming close to us," sighs Adina Huber. "But it's a good thing he's coming. He can help people understand that there needs to be a little more humanity in the world – not just war, money, and greed."

A destroyed church rises above war

Although Dresden was once known as the "Florence of the Elbe," war and four decades of communism disfigured its Baroque silhouette. Dresdeners suffered mightily during these times and the economy was deeply damaged.

And yet, after the Iron Curtain fell, Dresden literally rose from its ashes, highlighted by the reopening in 2005 of the Frauenkirche.

"If you want to know what hope is, you have to come to Dresden," Horst Köhler, president of Germany, said during the opening ceremonies.

The church was destroyed in what is often referred to as one of the greatest tragedies of the war. On Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, 800 British and American aircraft flattened the city with an incendiary bombing campaign so intense that the city burned for a week and some 25,000 people died.

The enormous stone dome of the Frauenkirche, which had once dominated the city skyline, collapsed into a pile of charred rubble by the end of St. Valentine's Day 1945.

As the Frauenkirche and the rest of the city lay in ruins throughout the half-century of East German rule, people would place candles on the rubble pile to remember the raid's victims.

Their dreams of rebuilding came after the Wall fell, when residents cleared the rubble pile, setting aside and numbering the church's original stones.

They called for help, writing a letter to the Queen of England. Russell, then a diplomat, decided to act.

"The call for help was instrumental in making some of us in Britain come to the conclusion that, if this country was responsible for the destruction … we had to take action," says Russell, who went on to create the fund that led the fundraising drive.

"After the war ends, we have to shake hands. We have to," he says. "The key thing is that the British and the Germans and others involved, now want to turn this tragedy – and it was a tragedy – into a symbol of reconciliation and into something which is going to promote reconciliation and new friendship."

First the church, then the city

With Dresden's facelift came an economic rebirth. With firms like the Volkswagen Glass Factory, built in 2001 for the assembly of the Phaeton luxury sedan, and other high-tech companies, the city earned the nickname Silicon Saxony.

"The city is humming and very excited," said the city's Mayor Helma Orosz, on the eve of Obama's visit. "The eyes of the entire world will be focused on our state capital on this day."

"It's a really big thing for Dresden: a black president here!" agrees Sandra Strympe, a local waitress. "He is different, and he wants to achieve things."

Ms. Strympe hopes that Obama's visit could help alleviate one of the scars of the past – the presence of the neo-Nazi scene. "It's bad here, very bad," says Strympe.

Right-wing violence troubles Dresden, as it does other eastern regions still suffering from the economic disaster following the collapse of East Germany. Nearly one in five adults here is unemployed.

Still struggling to jump the Wall

Roughly 20 minutes away from Dresden's old town are crumbling housing blocs and closed factories hastily built by the East German regime. Many look like ghost towns and are inhabited largely by pensioners. Here, the excitement over Obama's visit was more subdued.

Nearby Pirna, only a few miles from the Czech border, still hasn't completely recovered from the loss of some 9,000 jobs since the wall came down. Resident Klaus Hensel says Obama's visit reminds him of the visit of Kim Il Sung, the founding ruler of North Korea, who visited Dresden in the early 1980s.

"There was such a cult around him," Mr. Hensel says, adding that he is pleased by what he sees as the US not "trying to dominate the world anymore. It's moving toward more dialogue with other people."

Obama will travel to France Saturday to mark the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. His visit to Dresden, some say, is a continuation of his speech in Cairo to reach out to the Arab world.

"If we want to work with other countries, we really have to understand the point of view of other countries, to enter their mind sets, listen about their history," says Russell.

"Barack Obama has shown he has tried to listen to the voices of Arab people," he continues. "It was a very positive, useful first step toward getting a dialogue going."

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