The former chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel who was said to have authorized a controversial plan to build a memorial at a Nazi extermination camp in Poland is now saying he knows nothing about the plan.
The American Jewish Committee and other organizers of the plan have been pointing for months to a letter written on the letterhead of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau that says he “supports” their effort to construct a monument at the Belzec camp. The organizers had approached Lau and several other rabbinical authorities after one vocal New York rabbi, Avi Weiss, publicly accused them of desecrating the dead by planning to build atop what Weiss said were mass graves and earth riddled with bone shards. The AJCommittee denies these accusations.
In a telephone interview with the Forward from Israel last week, Lau — who is a Holocaust survivor — insisted he doesn’t “know anything” about the project. He said he did not recognize the January 12 letter written on his own letterhead and that he has never been to Belzec.
An outraged Weiss claims to have had a similar conversation with Lau, and he has accused the AJCommittee of “terrible deception.” “For the committee to fool the public to say the chief rabbi is behind this is really, really unacceptable,” Weiss said.
But the project’s organizers point to the letter’s clear endorsement of the plan as proof that they were not deceiving anyone. In addition, they have produced a recent decision by a committee of respected rabbis charged with preserving cemeteries in Europe that firmly supports the plan.
The Lau letter, signed by the chief rabbi’s then-personal assistant, Rabbi Rafael Frank, states: “I was asked by the honorable Chief Rabbi to respond to you and express his endorsement of the proposal to memorialize the sacred site.”
The addressee of the letter, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, told the Forward that he had approached Lau in November for input on the Belzec project. Lau had asked Schudrich to speak with Frank about the matter, which he did. Subsequently, Schudrich received the letter.
The cemetery committee, headed by Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger of London, stated in a May 13 decision that it reviewed the concerns of Weiss but came to the conclusion that the plan “is a great improvement (tikkun gadol) to protect this sacred site from 60 years of terrible neglect.”