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Memorial Project in Poland Sparks a Lawsuit from Holocaust Survivor

June 25, 2003
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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 started a tug-of-war between activist Rabbi Avi Weiss on one side and the AJCommittee and top rabbis from Europe and Israel on the other.

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.

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.

“Not only was Belzec in awful condition, but the remains were just blowing around,” 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, Berger said.

“The whole purpose was to preserve, protect and memorialize the Jews who were murdered there,” he 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.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the AJCommittee’s director of international affairs, who is overseeing the project, called the Belzec memorial a “powerful artistic statement that conveys a sense of what took place there.”

The AJCommittee then became Weiss’ target. Baker said he had been willing to meet with Weiss, but Weiss insisted on meeting with Harris, the organization’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 denies the trench will hurt Jewish remains, and several leading rabbis agree.

“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.”

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