How best to honor the memory of half a million Jews buried in the horrific and long-neglected Belzec death camp in southeastern Poland?
That’s the heart of a running dispute pitting several rabbis and Jewish organizations that support the approved design plan against New York activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, who insists the plan desecrates the victims and violates Jewish law.
The dispute echoes the debate in New York City over the memorial for the Sept. 11 World Trade Center victims.
Rabbi Weiss has been waging a lonely but public months-long campaign to change the $4 million Belzec project. He is affiliated with a lawsuit filed in federal District Court in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago under the name of a prominent New Jersey Holocaust survivor to block the plan, which is heading for completion this fall.
In an unusual twist, the lawsuit was "temporarily" withdrawn this week because the 83-year-old plaintiff, Norman Salsitz of Springfield, N.J., needed to devote time to his ailing wife, according to attorney Steven Lieberman.
But Lieberman, who has represented Rabbi Weiss in the past, says the withdrawal does not mean the fight is over.
During a phone interview Monday from London, Lieberman stressed that it’s not the entire Belzec memorial that is being opposed but only a pathway that runs through it.
The Belzec memorial, launched by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the mid-1990s, is being constructed under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee and the Polish government. It consists of several elements, including a perimeter wall, museum and memorial wall listing the names of Polish towns from which Jews were seized and taken to be killed there. Another wall will list first names of victims. (The proposal to list family names was rejected.)
But the issue of contention is a 600-foot-long "trench," or pathway, that will wind past the 33 mass graves in the death camp located about 100 miles southwest of Warsaw.
Belzec was one of only six concentration camps built solely to kill Jews in gas chambers, as opposed to others like Maijdanek and Auschwitz, which also were labor camps.
Belzec operated only between March 1942 and March 1943, but in that time scholars now estimate that 435,000 Jews were gassed and buried in mass graves. (The old estimate was 600,000.) It was the killing center for Jews from the Krakow, Lvov and Lublin regions, which included the heart of Galician Jewry.
"Belzec seems to be the most overlooked camp, though one of the most tragic places associated with the Holocaust," said Andrej Przewoznik, Poland’s secretary for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom, in a new AJCommittee booklet.
In the spring of 1943, as human bones and ashes were resurfacing from the shallow mass graves, the Germans sought to destroy the evidence. So they removed the bodies, burned them, crushed bones with special machines and buried the remains in large pits with only a thin covering of soil.
Deterioration, shifting soil, looters and years of neglect led to bones being scattered throughout the camp, "so that no zone is free of such remains," the lawsuit says.
Even after the Polish government built a small memorial in the 1960s to the victims of fascism, visitors in recent years could easily find bones and ashes.
And therein lies the dispute.
Rabbi Weiss argues that construction of the pathway, 112 feet wide and 30 feet deep, will no doubt churn up earth pockmarked with bones and other Jewish remains. This, he says, is a supreme but an avoidable desecration.
"Every step in building this trench memorial has involved desecration," Rabbi Weiss declared in a May 30 open letter to AJCommittee executive director David Harris.
Rabbi Weiss lamented that thousands of holes bored into the ground in 1997 during an archaeological survey for the memorial started the new desecration.
"There is no doubt that the digging of the trench memorial … will further violate the dead," Rabbi Weiss wrote. "Why then insist on this trench concept when there is absolutely no doubt that it will disturb human remains?"
In a phone interview Tuesday from London, Rabbi Weiss said: "If they tried to do this at the World Trade Center, they would be run out of town."
Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJCommittee’s director of international affairs, defends the trench, which he called a "fissure," as an essential part of the creative design.
"You have to view it as a whole," Rabbi Baker said. "The fissure, to the designer and artist, is a critical part of it. I think to now say a central element should be discarded or changed is simply not possible."
Rabbis Baker and Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Warsaw, also contend that Jewish law is on their side.
Rabbi Schudrich said he brought the desecration issue to Israel’s then-Chief Rabbi Israel Lau, who advised him to consult Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger of London, an international authority and chairman of the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.
In August 2002, Rabbi Schlesinger inspected Belzec.
"He concluded that the proposal, including the descending path, was acceptable according to halacha [Jewish law] and a great improvement over the current situation," Rabbi Schudrich said. "He recognized that no mass graves would be disturbed, something that would be strictly forbidden, while ash and bone fragments, if unearthed, would be returned to the mass graves where they were originally buried."
Rabbi Schudrich said he also met "at length" with Rabbi Lau’s assistant, Rabbi Rafael Franks, who in January wrote that Rabbi Lau endorsed the project. But Rabbi Weiss disputes these rabbinic approvals.
"I have spoken to Rabbi Lau and he has told me that he has no personal knowledge of the specifics of the memorial," Rabbi Weiss said.
He also claimed Rabbi Schlesinger "was misled."
"Rabbi Schlesinger told me that he gave his approval when he was informed that the only memorial possible at Belzec is a trench," Rabbi Weiss said.
"It’s obvious that there are many options other than a trench for Belzec, such as covering the entire area, surrounding it with a protective fence and building a memorial above ground and on the outside."
Rabbi Weiss said he has consulted with other rabbis who agree with him, including Rabbi Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Weiss said it is impossible for Rabbi Schudrich to monitor every shovel of earth to see if it contains bones or ash. Lieberman suggested that towers could be built overlooking the camp so visitors can look in but not desecrate the site.
Rabbi Baker said suggestions are too late.
Salsitz, who lost his mother and five sisters in Belzec, told The Jewish Week he opposed the trench because it was disrespectful and violated Jewish law.
But Atlanta attorney Ken Kaplan, whose dozens of relatives from Zaklikow, Poland, were killed in Belzec, supported the trench.
"I would feel the same way I would feel if somebody barred me from visiting a cemetery where my relatives were buried," he said.
"For those of us who lost family there and the millions of Poles who don’t know history, to keep it a closed memorial denies the world the right to learn what happened there and to visit a sacred place."
Kaplan toured Belzec in 1999 with his mother, Mildred, and witnessed an abandoned, weed-choked, rock-strewn site.
"There was no sense that a horrific event took place there," he said. "It was sad."
"Closing the camp wouldn’t fill the need of the mourners," agreed Rabbi Schudrich, who said a November dedication for the memorial is planned. "They want to walk on the grounds where their ancestors walked. And the fact is we have a way to do that that is halachic."
- Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Israel Lau
- David Harris
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Polish government
- Michael Schudrich
- Andrej Przewoznik
- Elyakim Schlesinger
- Ken Kaplan
- Steven Lieberman
- executive director
- World Trade Center
- New York
- New Jersey
- Staff Writer
- Avi Weiss
- Norman Salsitz