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Activist Rabbi Goes to Poland As Fight over Death Camp Project Gets Personal

A dispute over a Nazi death camp memorial pitting a New York activist rabbi against the American Jewish Committee and the Israeli and Polish governments is turning personal and, literally, dirty.

The rabbi, Avi Weiss, went to the Belzec death camp in Poland last week, spending the wee hours of the morning of July 30 blocking construction of the memorial in the camp.

After Weiss and a fellow rabbi delayed the digging into the camp’s soil, Weiss went to the presidential palace in Warsaw to demand that the Polish government halt the project.

At issue is a below-ground walkway under construction at the site, which Weiss says disturbs the remains of the dead. The AJCommittee — the main backer of the project, along with the Polish government — denies that charge.

The AJCommittee contends that the memorial not only shores up a site that has fallen into disrepair but will protect Jewish remains by ensuring that pedestrians no longer walk freely around the area.

The group’s executive director, David Harris, said the AJCommittee never would have supported the project had it not secured the approval of “the highest rabbinic authorities.”

A spokesman for Poland’s Foreign Ministry, Boguslaw Majewski, said the government would “not comment on Rabbi Weiss’ doings.”

Harris suggested that Weiss, president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, might have ulterior motives for fighting the memorial.

“I can only hope and pray that no one would be motivated by personal issues to do such disservice to such a worthwhile project,” Harris said.

He was alluding to the fact that Weiss is the brother-in-law of a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Walter Reich.

Reich was supervised and later fired by the man, Miles Lerman, who is the Belzec project’s chief backer.

Weiss, who has made headlines for crusading against other death-camp memorials and projects, such as a Catholic convent at Auschwitz, vehemently rejected any notion that he has a hidden agenda.

“I take second place to no one when it comes to Shoah memory,” Weiss, who lost seven relatives at Belzec, said in an interview from Warsaw. “It has nothing to do with a vendetta at all. I am not going to get involved in that kind of crass discussion.”

Last week Amcha took its protest to a religious court, asking the Beit Din, or religious court, of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America to mediate the dispute.

The Beit Din’s director, Rabbi Yona Reiss, sent a letter to Harris saying it would be willing to mediate or arbitrate the conflict.

The AJCommittee has yet to respond to the Beit Din.

The new conflict-of-interest charges center around a 1998 controversy at the museum involving Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Lerman forced Reich to resign as museum director for opposing a State Department request that the museum host Arafat.

It was Lerman who first proposed the Belzec memorial, which the museum took on in 1995 under Reich’s leadership. Lerman also has led fund-raising efforts that have netted nearly $4.5 million for the project.

Lerman refused to comment on any alleged tie between the Arafat matter and the Belzec protest.

Reich, now a professor at George Washington University, said the attempt to link the Arafat snafu to Weiss’ Belzec protest was “pitiful.”

“It’s as if those who make that misattribution can’t understand the idea that some people are actually motivated by genuine matters of principle,” Reich said.

“Avi is genuinely appalled by what he sees as the desecration of the remains of the dead specifically, and the desecration of Holocaust memory in particular,” he said.

A spokesman for the museum declined to address the matter.

A year ago — when the museum’s current director, Fred Zeidman, narrowed its mandate to domestic concerns — the museum asked the AJCommittee to take over the Belzec project.

Just before that, in June 2002, Weiss took his first public slap at the museum and the project in an Op-Ed article in the Forward newspaper.

The Belzec conflict took a dirty twist — literally — on July 30 when Weiss visited Belzec along with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who is one of Amcha’s national vice presidents and an associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Weiss’ New York pulpit.

The two showed up at 5:30 a.m. to try to block construction of the 600-foot, 30-foot-deep below-ground ramp through the death camp, where an estimated 600,000 Jews were killed between 1942 and 1943.

Construction for the ramp, which Weiss calls a “trench,” is unearthing the remains of Jews whom the Nazis buried at the site to hide their murders, Weiss contends. The AJCommittee denies the charge.

The Nazis ground up and burned corpses and buried the remains at the camp. Test drills the museum conducted at the site in 1997 pinpointed 33 mass graves.

Weiss and his supporters say there are human remains blanketing Belzec, which the AJCommittee denies.

“You can see small fragments” around the camp grounds “that you could mistake for stones,” Weiss said, “but it’s bone.”

He and Herzfeld managed to delay construction at the site for nearly five hours, Weiss said.

Weiss said heavy machinery being used to build the walkway was trampling the area, where he said cement walls for the sunken walkway already have arisen.

AJCommittee officials said the walkway is a few weeks from completion, and the entire memorial is due to be finished later this year.

Last month, Weiss and a Scottish Jewish woman who believes that some of her relatives died in Belzec also sued the AJCommittee in New York State Supreme Court, seeking an injunction to stop the work.

After going to Belzec, Weiss marched outside the palace of Polish President Aleksander Krasniewski. An Amcha official said that the group may ask a Polish court to step in if the Polish leader does not intervene.

Majewski, the Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Warsaw Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who is working as a volunteer consultant to the AJCommittee on the project, reflects the government’s view of the project.

“There is only one person who feels very deeply opposed to this pathway, and I can’t understand why,” Schudrich told JTA.

“We have not found any charred bits or bone fragments in the pathway,” he said, adding that if any are found they will be buried in the mass graves.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry also came down in favor of the project.

The project will enable visitors to “gain an understanding of the terrible events that took place at Belzec,” the ministry wrote in a letter to the AJCommittee. “Moreover, it will prevent further desecration of a site that has hitherto been left unattended.”

Harris said the AJCommittee already has secured blessings for the Belzec work from Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, head of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe; Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel; Rabbi Schudrich, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

But Weiss counters that Schlesinger was given incorrect information about the extent of the work, that Schudrich is not a cemetery expert and that Lau since has told him that he never saw any details of the plan and did not make any halachic ruling.

Weiss also said that there are others who reject the walkway. He produced a letter to the U.S. Holocaust Museum last year from Polish Holocaust survivors voicing their objections.

The New Cracow Friendship Society, which represents 400 families of survivors from the Krakow area, opposed the Belzec path because it believes the walkway represents a “desecration” of Jewish remains, its president, Roman Weingarten, said.

“The whole ground of Belzec is holy ground, because there’s not one inch that doesn’t have ash and bone,” he said.

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