There were tears and soft crying Wednesday evening as Orthodox Jewish women, survivors of Nazi concentration camps, lit candles on a stage at Madison Square Garden here in memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. And there were words of anger a few minutes later as Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University in New York, lashed out at President Reagan's May itinerary in West Germany. He wondered how the President could honor the memory of German soldiers at the cemetery in Bitburg -- where some of Hitler's elite troopers, the SS soldiers, are also buried -- while ignoring their Jewish victims at Dachau.
``A courtesy call at a conveniently located concentration camp cannot compensate for the callous and obscene scandal of honoring dead Nazis,'' Rabbi Lamm said before an audience of 4,600 in the arena at the Felt Forum. He was referring to the President's decision Tuesday to visit a concentration camp as well as a German cemetery. Reagan aides said then that Dachau might be ruled out because of logistical difficulties. Originally the President had declined to visit a camp at all, saying he didn't want to ``reawaken the memories'' of that period.
During a question-and-answer period with the press at a White House luncheon Thursday, President Reagan defended his decision to visit Bitburg. He acknowledged that about 30 of the graves in the cemetery are those of SS troops, but added that most of the 2,200 graves are of teen-agers ``forced into miliatry service in the closing days of the Third Reich.''
``I think there's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also . . . ,'' the President said.
In New York, the memorial service Wednesday night was one of many activities happening around the United States in what organizers call ``Remembrance week,'' in honor of the 40th anniversary of the liberation at the concentration camps.
The audience at the Felt Forum included survivors, their children, relatives, and friends. Many of the older people -- immigrants from places like Germany, Romania, and Poland -- spoke with heavy accents. Several of the speeches were in Yiddish.
``When survivors remember, it is not for the victims,'' said Benjamin Meed, president of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization. ``Not even for the Jewish people do we remember. Remembrance of the Holocaust is an act of faith in mankind. We share our memories in order to [fight] indifference and complacency . . . .''
At ceremonies commemorating the Holocaust on Wednesday, Secretary of State George Shultz told members of Congress and others that ``We will never forget the atrocities committed by Hitler and we will continue to pursue the criminals who carried out his awful designs.''
Speaking to congressmen and others in the Capitol Rotunda, he added that ``we will bring them to justice no matter how long it takes.''
Dennis B. Klein, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL), says the activities this week and through July help focus discussion of the tragedy in a way that is intelligent and meaningful.
``Unlike 10 years ago, people have knowledge about the Holocaust,'' Mr. Klein says. ``The effort today is to work against misrepresentation.''
He says there is too often a tendency to ``lift'' the event out of history by seeing it as an aberration.
Klein further explains that the Holocaust came from the course of history, and if it is never to happen again, it must be understood.
ADL's Holocaust center just began a journal of Holocaust studies as an aid to educators, researchers, and the general public.
Miriam Weiner of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors says that because of Mr. Reagan's controversial visits in West Germany, a whole spectrum of people -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- have been outraged.
She says education, particularly of young people, about the Holocaust is something that continually needs to be done. This feeling was echoed by people attending the remembrance Wednesday. One woman, originally from Hungary, said she had ``lost many to the Nazis.''
``It is important for all of us to know, and then to turn to life,'' she said outside the auditorium before the program began.