Memorial project in Poland
sparks a lawsuit from Holocaust survivor
By: Joe Berkofsky
NEW YORK, June 25 (JTA) — A concentration camp survivor is suing the American Jewish Committee to block part of a memorial the group is building at one of the most lethal Nazi death camps.
Norman Salsitz of Livingston, N.J., sued the AJCommittee in U.S. District Court in Washington on Monday. He is claiming that a $4 million memorial the group is building to honor the estimated 600,000 victims of Belzec, in southeastern Poland, will disturb the remains of Jews that the Nazis burned, ground up and mixed into the camp´s soil in a ghastly coverup effort.
The memorial is being co-sponsored by the Polish government.
"What is a monument? A remembrance of a terrible thing," said Salsitz, 83. "You don´t remember by stepping in the blood and the bones and the ashes."
At the heart of the battle is a 12-foot-wide pathway 30 feet below ground, envisioned by the memorial´s Polish designers as an interstice running hundreds of feet through the camp "like a crack in the earth."
That pathway, which opponents call a "trench," has become the focus of a struggle that activist Rabbi Avi Weiss has launched against the AJCommittee and top rabbis from Europe and Israel.
It has sparked charges of Jewish desecration and cast shadows that reach even to Ground Zero in New York and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
An AJCommittee official denies the trench will hurt Jewish remains, and several leading rabbis agree.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, the AJCommittee´s director of international affairs, who is overseeing the project, called the memorial a "powerful artistic statement that conveys a sense of what took place there."
Salsitz lost 23 relatives, including his mother and five sisters, in Belzec. The Nazis used carbon monoxide to kill prisoners at the camp and buried them in 33 mass graves between March and December 1942.
The next year the Nazis brought in a grinder and bulldozers, unearthed the corpses, burned and crushed them, then buried most of the residue.
By war´s end, only a handful of inmates had survived Belzec, one of the most efficient of six Nazi death factories among 3,300 concentration camps.
Now a retired developer and author of five Holocaust books, Salsitz charges that the trench will disturb the human fragments that remain in the camp, scattered across the site by wind and rain and buried in its soil.
Digging the trench would require earth-moving equipment that is certain to disturb the remains of Jews, said Steve Lieberman, an attorney familiar with the case.
"Every square inch of that soil is permeated with body parts and is suffused with bone shards and ash," he said.
Enter Weiss, president of Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha. Weiss, who led the fight against a convent at Auschwitz, has waged a year-long public campaign against the AJCommittee´s plans, with op-ed columns in the Jerusalem Post and Forward and a full-page ad in the Forward addressed to the AJCommittee´s executive vice president, David Harris.
Lieberman, who is Weiss´ attorney, knew of Salsitz and told him of the museum plans. Salsitz ultimately decided to sue.
Salsitz simply wants the trench shifted outside the camp´s ground, Lieberman said — though the suit also seeks $75,000 in damages to meet the standards for federal court filings.
Salsitz said he would donate the money to charity.
"We´re seeing a terrible desecration taking place, the worst in Shoah memory," Weiss said. "It´s a Vietnam-type memorial, and that disturbs me because the Shoah should have its own spiritual power."
The project´s tortuous history also troubles him. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington launched the Belzec project in the early 1990s to remember camp victims. At the time the site was decaying, with only a Soviet-era memorial.
"Belzec was in awful condition," said Arthur Berger, a spokesman for the Washington museum.
Polish authorities conducted test boring at the camp in 1998 in an effort to map out a grid around the mass graves that would enable construction to begin without disturbing Jewish remains.
But the test boring "went into human remains," Weiss said. The lawsuit describes drills hitting bodies that have turned to wax, as well as bones and ash.
"It´s like the World Trade Center" site, Weiss said. "If anyone tried to bore holes, to do what has occurred at Belzec, they would be reviled."
The grisly results were the opposite of what the museum wanted.
"The whole purpose was to preserve, protect and memorialize the Jews who were murdered there," Berger said.
The Holocaust museum had raised half the money for the project — with the Polish government kicking in the rest — but decided to pull out because it felt the project didn´t reflect the museum´s mission to memorialize the Holocaust in the United States, Berger said.
That´s when the AJCommittee stepped in — and became Weiss´ target.
Baker said he had been willing to meet with Weiss, but Weiss insisted on meeting with Harris, the AJCommittee´s leader.
Harris wanted Baker to handle such meetings since Baker has led the project, he said.
Weiss´s public campaign against the memorial sparked four responses to the AJCommittee, Baker said — two of them letters from sisters who escaped from a train on its way to Belzec, and who donated $18,000 after learning more about the project from AJCommittee officials.
Baker said the trench will not hurt Jewish remains.
"There is a fissure through an area in which it was determined there were no mass graves," he said. But the pathway will allow people to visit the camp in a "controlled" manner and keep them off the other grounds.
The soil excavated from the trench will be placed atop the camp´s mass graves some distance away, covered with an impermeable material and topped with gravel to contain any possible remains, AJCommittee officials said.
Along the way, the AJCommittee secured the approval of Israel´s then- Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, as well as the London-based Committee for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, headed by Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, an authority on Jewish law and burial issues.
In a May letter, the cemeteries panel said there was a "remote concern" that remains could be unearthed, but said the monument amounts to a "tikkun gadol," or great improvement, to the site.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, also defends the work.
Schudrich, who told JTA he has volunteered to aid the project, maintained that he has checked the work on many visits to the camp and that he supervises two observant young men who live nearby and oversee the project.
The Polish government also has agreed to halt any work if Jewish law is violated, he said.
"There is no controversy here," he said. "There is one person who feels very opposed to this pathway. I can´t understand why."
WASHINGTON, July 3 /U.S. Newswire/ -- The American Jewish Committee is gratified that a suit filed against it concerning the construction of a memorial project at the site of the Belzec death camp in Poland has been dismissed by the plaintiff himself.
The plaintiff in the case, a Holocaust survivor residing in New Jersey decided to withdraw his complaint once he learned the true nature of the project and the support it has received from rabbinic authorities in Israel and the Diaspora. The memorial being established at Belzec will provide permanent protection to the 33 mass graves of Holocaust victims, while properly commemorating their fate.
Between February and December 1942 close to half a million Jews were murdered in one of the most lethal killing centers ever established. Jews from throughout the Galician region as well as elsewhere in Europe were deported to Belzec and directly to their deaths. At the end of 1942, when the Germans had concluded that all Jews in the region had been murdered, they sought to hide evidence of their crime. Mass graves were opened and the bodies burned and crushed. The gas chambers were dismantled and trees were planted on the site. Only a handful of victims survived Belzec, and only one was able to offer a full account of what he had seen.
For decades the site has been exposed and neglected, with little indication of the horrors that took place. In November 2002, the American Jewish Committee agreed to assume the role initially undertaken by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as partner with the Polish Government. An international panel of judges had selected a design for the memorial that also serves to encircle and protect the entire site of the camp and its mass graves. The entire site will be permanently protected, names of the destroyed communities will be identified, and for the first time an orientation and information center will explain the full story of Belzec and the Holocaust to visitors. The project is being funded jointly by the Polish Government and a private donor campaign, spearheaded by Miles Lerman. It is supported by some of the foremost authorities in the rabbinic world, including the Office of the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.
The American Jewish Committee, founded in 1906, is an internationally respected human relations organization dedicated to protecting the rights and freedoms of Jews throughout the world, working for the security of Israel and a deepened understanding between Americans and Israelis. Through research, advocacy and programming AJC defends democratic values and seeks their realization in American public policy, fights all forms of bigotry, supports human and civil rights, promotes pluralism and intergroup understanding.