Norbert Dikales, 75, walked down a pathway that goes 30 feet below ground and descended into a nightmare. For the first time in his life this week, Dikales, of Bethesda, Md., was visiting the notorious Belzec death camp in Poland, where his parents and most of his family were killed. They were among an estimated 600,000 Jews exterminated there between 1942 and 1943 in the most brutal Nazi killing camp outside of Auschwitz.
Dikales went to Belzec to attend the opening ceremony Thursday of a new $5 million memorial to mark the murders, and he descended into the site on a walkway behind some 400 Israeli army officers.
“I wish my parents could have seen this,” he said in a phone interview from Belzec, his voice breaking.
The ceremony drew about 1,000 people, including Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, top officials from Israel, Germany and the United States, and several hundred Holocaust survivors and their families.
The opening of the memorial not only opened a new chapter for the once-ignored site, but — for now — ended a highly charged debate over the memorial’s construction.
The three-hour ceremony, broadcast live on Polish TV, capped a multiyear battle over whether the 600-foot pathway Dikales and others walked down desecrates the remains of the dead.
The ramp, and the trench dug to construct it, cut through an area suffused with bone shards and ash, left over from when the Nazis burned their victims in an attempt to hide the murders of Jews deported from the nearby region of Galicia.
Opposition to the memorial ramp began in 1998 when builders began test drilling at the site to determine where the human remains lay so they could be avoided during construction.
Foes said the test drilling couldn’t help but disturb the remains, and last year Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the New York-based Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, went to Belzec to try to block bulldozer operators from working on the memorial. Weiss said the construction was unearthing yet more Jewish remains.
Even as the memorial opened this week, Weiss, who has a U.S. federal lawsuit pending against the memorial, vowed to continue his efforts.
“It’s not over,” Weiss told JTA. “There will be serious study and investigation of the trench, and I intend to continue to speak out to make sure this never happens again.”
At the ceremony, Kwasniewski said, “This whole Jewish universe of Galicia was wiped off the map and buried in this grave,” The Associated Press reported.
The site had been neglected for decades. The remains of the dead were left to the mercy of the elements, trash covered the empty fields and residents of nearby towns would use the area as a pedestrian shortcut.
The memorial, a project funded in equal parts by the Polish government and private donations raised by the American Jewish Committee, was meant to mark and protect the remaining evidence of the killings that took place there. The building consists of the controversial ramp surrounded by walls inscribed with the names of some of the victims of what the AJCommittee said was the first Nazi gas chamber.
“The monument is the emotional equivalent of the Vietnam memorial” in Washington, said Barry Jacobs, director of strategic studies for the AJCommittee.
Solomon Redner, 74, of Philadelphia, said the memorial and the debate behind its construction means little compared to the fact that he lost his grandparents and other relatives there.
Redner, who as a child lived and hid in the Jewish ghetto of the city of Lvov, some 50 miles away, said only one thing went through his mind during the ceremony.
“For me, it was a cemetery of my family,” he told JTA after the Belzec ceremony.
Dikales, who was born in Berlin and whose parents sent him on a Kindertransport to France, brought his wife, two children and a 19-year-old grandson to the ceremony.
Almost 10,000 children, mostly Jews, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were saved in the Kindertransports when Britain granted entry visas to children between 1938 and 1940.
His brother, Dikales’ only relative to have survived the Holocaust, died recently, but Dikales said he had visited the site a decade ago and reported that he was “scandalized” by its condition.
“He was so upset, he took back soil in a bottle to bury properly,” Dikales said. “We found little piece of human bones in it.”
Dikales said his family was visibly moved by the ceremony, especially when rabbis and cantors recited Kaddish.
“How can you express the horror of more than half a million people killed in one little place?” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.