Lawsuit Over Belzec Memorial Withdrawn

Joe Berkofsky

JULY 08, 2003
New York

A Holocaust survivor has dropped his lawsuit against the American Jewish Committee over a $4 million memorial the group is building at one of the deadliest Nazi concentration camps.

Norman Salsitz of Livingston, N.J., said he decided to withdraw his lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington and had sought an injunction blocking a memorial at the Belzec concentration camp in Poland, because his wife is gravely ill and he "cannot fight" this battle now.

But Mr. Salsitz, who lost 23 close relatives at the camp, including his mother, and has written several Holocaust-related books, told JTA that he remains opposed to the memorial.

He objects to a pedestrian path slated to go through the death camp grounds that he fears will unearth ash and bones of Jewish corpses that the Nazis tried to destroy and bury in order to hide evidence of the 600,000 murdered there.

"A monument is a flag, a wall, a sculpture. To make a pleasure walk? This isn't a monument!" said the 83-year-old Mr. Salsitz.

The AJCommittee trumpeted the reversal as a victory for the memorial's virtues and said it was "gratified" over the dismissal.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the AJCommittee's project director for the monument, said that rather than disturb Jewish remains, the path will protect them because it will prevent people from walking around the camp's 33 mass graves, in an area that until recently pedestrians roamed freely.

As part of the construction work, he added, any body parts that get unearthed will be re-buried in the mass graves and sealed, Rabbi Baker said.

"This is a terrific improvement," Rabbi Baker said. "It will allow mourners to visit the graves by walking along a descending path while preventing them from straying on the mass graves themselves."

Though short lived, the lawsuit, which was filed on June 23 and withdrawn on July 3, was the latest development in a long campaign to memorialize Belzec, one of six death camps among the 3,300 Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust.

The memorial, which is being co-sponsored by the Polish government, is slated to be completed later this year.

For more than a year, activist Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York and his organization, Amcha-Coalition for Jewish Concerns, campaigned publicly against what he called a "trench" being dug for the path through the camp.

Rabbi Weiss was out of the country and unavailable for comment this week, but Amcha's executive director, Josh Chadajo, said his group remains "very much against the trench."

"We would hope the AJCommittee's fixation on this trench would give way to a more open process to decide what this memorial should be," he said.

Amcha has criticized the AJCommittee's executive director, David Harris, for rebuffing requests to meet, though the AJCommitee's Rabbi Baker said he has repeatedly met with Amcha members.

Both AJCommittee and Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Lodz and Warsaw who is volunteering his time to oversee construction of the project, believe that Mr. Salsitz changed his mind after recently meeting with Rabbi Schudrich.

Rabbi Schudrich said he explained to Mr. Salsitz that several leading rabbinical authorities have given the memorial their blessings, including the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the office of the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau.

A letter from Rabbi Lau's office indicating he supported the project was signed by his assistant, Rabbi Rafael Frank, though Rabbi Lau himself has said he was unaware of the document.

For his part, Mr. Salsitz said he felt he was caught up in a struggle of "politics."

"I want" Belzec "to be remembered," he said. "But a monument could be made in a way that I wouldn't be hurt."