Between March and December 1942, more than 600,000 Jews were murdered in the Belzec killing camp in Poland. In 1943, to cover up the crime, the Nazis demolished the camp and dug up and burned hundreds of thousands of bodies. Ashes, bones and bodies were buried in chaotic fashion.
Ever since, Belzec has been abused. Under the Communist regime, the memory of the Holocaust was suppressed or distorted for propaganda purposes. Perimeter markers of the camp were trashed or worn away by the elements. Thieves and looters raked the ground for booty. Local farmers repeatedly invaded the camp grounds by farming; pigs and other animals foraged amidst the unmarked graves of this dark and bloody ground.
Jewish tradition requires final acts of respect for humans: to treat a corpse with caring kindness, to bury the dead with dignity and to mark their resting places. To meet this obligation, the Talmud ruled that the most sacred moment of the entire Jewish calendar must be overridden. Although the high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was considered the equivalent of being in the direct presence of God, nevertheless, if the high priest comes upon an abandoned corpse, he must personally take up the body and bury it even though this will make him unable to perform the Yom Kippur service. The abandoned corpse is classified as a met mitzvah, or a mitzvah corpse. The mitzvah — commandment — of providing respectful burial without delay overrides every other consideration.
For 60 years, Belzec, scandalously forsaken, has been a met mitzvah, times 600,000. To his eternal credit, Miles Lerman, then chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, acted. Although assuring the dignity of Holocaust burial grounds was not a stated mission of the museum, Lerman negotiated a commitment by Poland to create a proper memorial. To help the Polish government, which pleaded poverty, he undertook to raise matching funds. Ultimately, he obtained governmental approval for a competition to design an appropriate memorial, a distinguished commission to judge it and a pledge to construct the winning design. Lerman worked tirelessly to overcome government shifts, bureaucratic snafus, architect conflicts and museum disagreements. All this time, the scattered remains have lain there, memorial delayed and dignity denied.
Over the course of three years, 2,227 study drills were done by hand to find the location of the bodies, ashes and demolished buildings. This search was not supervised by rabbinic legal scholars; with hindsight, there were violations of dignity in handling the ashes and remains. Nevertheless, the locations of the mass graves and the distribution of ashes and residues were established, paving the way for a proper memorial.
In 2000, a committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council reviewed the winning design. We found the design — located away from the site of the mass graves — to be powerful, moving, informative and appropriate. Considering the monstrous nature of the camp and the long history of postwar abuse and neglect, this design was no small achievement.
Then chief rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Lau, was approached to certify that the memorial and the construction process would meet standards of Halacha, or rabbinic law, concerning respect for bodies and bones. He recommended that the design be cleared with Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, a renowned ultra-Orthodox rabbinic legal expert who reviewed other memorials and cemeteries in Europe. Lau also instructed the rabbinic secretary of the Chief Rabbinate to investigate and write a letter in the name of the chief rabbi endorsing the project.
Rabbi Schlesinger concluded that whatever the risk of disturbing ashes and remains, the proposed memorial was a tikkun gadol, a great improvement over the intolerable desolation of the site. Schlesinger also vetted the halachically required procedures to erect the memorial.
The Belzec memorial, however, has come under fire from Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns. Initially, his primary criticism was that the Holocaust museum was not a Jewish institution and had no right to develop memorials in Europe. He also cited reports of human remains disturbed by the drilling studies. I believe that Rabbi Weiss’s criticism led to the strengthening of the halachic supervision to assure the dignity of the dead and that this was a constructive contribution.
By 2002, Holocaust museum professionals and its new lay leadership, raw from various conflicts with Rabbi Weiss, moved to separate the museum from the Belzec project. However, Miles Lerman, keeping faith with the dead, turned to the American Jewish Committee to serve as co-sponsor with the Polish government. There was concern that Rabbi Weiss would continue to criticize and possibly blacken the reputation of the AJCommittee. But feelings of compassion for the abandoned victims and a sense that this was the right thing to do led the AJCommittee to become the official sponsor.
I believed that the project was historically needed, morally required and justified from the standpoint of rabbinic law. I hoped that once the memorial was transferred from the Holocaust museum to the AJCommittee and supervision procedures were in place that Rabbi Weiss would come to the same conclusion. To encourage the AJCommittee, I promised that should criticism continue, I would speak out publicly to explain the validity of the project. Rabbi Weiss and I have spoken directly on this matter. He sincerely believes that the ground at Belzec is so saturated with human residues that this proposed memorial will automatically desecrate the remains. He would like to start over again and create a memorial outside the camp. But it seems clear to me that if the project is unraveled, we would go back to minus square one — that is, it might well be impossible to renegotiate the government’s role, win political approval and priority, get Polish architects’ support and so on. Better the risks of the memorial construction under supervision than that the horrendous neglect of Belzec go on and on.
As is widely known, I am a longtime friend and admirer of Rabbi Weiss, for his decades-long activism for Israel and Holocaust memory, for social justice, for improving Orthodox women’s religious expression, for creating an open Orthodoxy. Therefore, I speak out publicly with great hesitation.
On the matter of the Belzec memorial, Rabbi Weiss, however unintentionally, has delayed righting a wrong. He should relent and focus on assuring proper handling of any remains uncovered in the course of the memorial’s creation. He should withdraw the lawsuit he has filed against the AJCommittee — a suit that will cost tens of thousands of dollars that should not be diverted to so unproductive a conflict. He should also withdraw his imputation that Miles Lerman, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council leadership, David Harris, the AJCommittee, Rabbi Michael Schudrich of Warsaw, Rabbi Schlesinger and all who toiled for years to create a memorial are carrying out a grave desecration. In return, Rabbi Weiss should be invited to participate in the supervision of the process. Lerman and AJCommittee’s noble act of final respect is long overdue. This chesed shel emet, an act of pure loving kindness, should be honored, not be blocked by criticism or legal suit.
In the El Maleh Rachamim prayer for the dead, we ask of God, “May they rest in peace.” Considering the cruelty of the Jews’ fate and the brutal violence of their death and disposition, considering six decades of abuse and neglect, it is too late to pray for a final rest-in-peace at Belzec. Rather, the Jews’ restless blood should cry out from the earth through a powerful memorial to unceasingly shock the successor generations — about the conscience of humanity that abandoned them, about Christians who did not speak up, about politicians who stood by during the Shoah. I pray that the living, at last, draw the curtain of care, compassion and memory around the dead of Belzec; at least, stop disturbing their rest with any further quarrels.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg is president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council from 2000 until 2002.