At great risk to themselves, a band of university students emerged in Nazi Germany in 1942 to brand Hitler a liar and to challenge the German people to resist his policies.

”Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race?” the students asked in one leaflet.

Thursday night, this small group of Christian resisters, known as the White Rose Movement, was honored at a dinner in New York given by the American Jewish Congress. Among those who attended were a survivor of the movement and two relatives of students who were beheaded by the Nazis for distributing White Rose literature.

Proud Relatives

Some 42 years after the executions, the relatives spoke more with pride than with sorrow. ”They were conscious of the consequences,” said Inge Aicher-Scholl, whose brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, were beheaded.

Leaders of the American Jewish Congress continued to criticize President Reagan’s visit on May 5 to Bitburg, the cemetery in West Germany where 49 members of Hitler’s SS are among the dead. But one favorable byproduct of the controversy surrounding the trip, they said, was the renewed interest in the White Rose activists.

”For Jews, it is vital to know that there were such Germans,” Dr. Michael Wyschogrod, director of the congress’s Institute for Jewish-Christian Relations, told the gathering at the Park Avenue Synagogue, Madison Avenue and 87th Street. ”These young people represented the best in the German culture in which they had been raised.”

In the leaflets, the students quoted from Kant, Schiller, Goethe and Beethoven, and their ”deep Christian faith” comes through, Dr. Wyschogrod said.

Resisters Had Choice

”We Jews had no choice,” said Dr. Wyschogrod, who fled Hitler with his family in 1939. ”These people had a choice. They could have been Nazis or they could have just kept quiet like so many others did. But they spoke out.”

The leaflets are shocking in their brazenness. They were distributed in 1942, before the tide of the war turned against the Germans. Mrs. Aicher-Scholl’s book, ”The White Rose,” (American edition, Wesleyan University Press, 1983) includes such passages as these:

”Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed.” – The Fourth Leaflet.

”Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late.” – The First Leaflet.

Arrests and Executions

About 150 people were arrested for being part of the movement, according to Dr. Wyschogrod; 18 died either through execution or in concentration camps and 36 served prison terms until liberated by the Allies in 1945.

Two days before the President and the West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, laid a wreath at Bitburg, several hundred people placed white roses on the graves of Hans and Sophie Scholl in Munich.

At the New York dinner, Henry Siegman, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, announced the establishment of a new foundation that will sponsor educational programs in American schools and universities, to study the model of resistance offered by the White Rose.

Mrs. Aicher-Scholl told the 200 dinner participants about her sister and brother, both students at the university in Munich. Sophie was 21 years old and a student of biology and philosophy. Hans, who was 24, was a medical student and a soldier in the German army.

Both saw atrocities around them and Hans came back from his military service even more disgusted with the Nazi regime. ”The indifference of almost the whole German people terrified them,” Mrs. Aicher-Scholl said.

Anneliese Knoop-Graf spoke about her brother Willi Graf, also a medical student and a soldier, who was executed for being part of the White Rose movement. He was 21.

Official Church Called Indifferent

Willi was deeply motivated by his Roman Catholic faith, Mrs. Knoop-Graf said, but at the same time he was ”shocked by the indifference of the official church.”

Franz Joseph Mueller survived his arrest as a member of the White Rose Movement because he was 18 at the time and the head of the ”people’s court” that heard the case decided that he had been led astray by his older cohorts.

”People ask me how it was possible that we stood up,” said Mr. Mueller, a lawyer active in the Social Democratic Party in West Germany. ”I answer, ‘How could we sit and sleep seeing what we saw?’.”