Several years ago the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum decided to build a Holocaust memorial for the 600,000 Jews murdered at Belzec.
Last June, I warned on these pages that “Despite assurances by museum officials that ‘we are being careful in construction not to disturb any human remains,’ anyone familiar with the Belzec terrain, saturated in its depth and breadth with the ashes and bones of the Jewish dead, knows that this is well nigh impossible.”
With the recent publication of Andrzej Kola’s book “Belzec: The Nazi Camp for Jews in the Light of Archaeological Sources,” no one involved with the memorial project can claim ignorance of the desecration that has occurred.
Kola documents how, in anticipation of creating the Belzec memorial, 2,227 very deep “bore holes” were sunk every 16.25 feet in a systematic grid encompassing the Belzec site. Former museum chairman Miles Lerman, whose organization co-published the book, writes in the foreword that “it was necessary to conduct archaeological research in order to thoroughly examine the topography of the former camp, so as to exclude areas with human remnants. So that we in commemorating, do not violate the memory of those whom we want to commemorate.”
Yet countless violations did occur — as described in the book itself. Page after page of Kola’s book describes what was found in the name of “archaeological research.” In Grave Pit Number One, at a “depth of about [6.5 feet] burnt human bones and charcoal were mixed together.” In Grave Pit Number Thirteen “there was a layer of bodies in a wax-fat transformation.” Grave Pit Number Sixteen “contained crematory ashes in layers with sand.” A colored map with red circles indicates where remains were found. Red circles are everywhere.
One cannot read Kola’s account without wondering what possessed the Holocaust museum to become involved in an effort that so blatantly desecrated the remains of the dead. What did the drillers do when they hit bone or “wax-fat”? How did they dispose of the disturbed remains? Why did they continue to systematically and obsessively drill every few yards when they knew full well what lay under their feet? And was there a rabbi standing by to monitor the treatment of the dead or even to whisper a prayer over their tortured remains?
In the end, the museum’s new chairman, Bush-appointee Fred Zeidman, decided to transfer the project from his federal institution to the private American Jewish Committee. One can only hope this move heralds a new path for the museum, a path that focuses on its mandate of remembrance and education and refrains from involvement in international adventures. The museum’s mandate does not include building memorials in death camps thousands of miles from Washington.
As for AJCommittee, if it intends to pursue the memorialization at Belzec with honor, it must completely reject the trench memorial. This huge trench, proposed by the museum, is being planned for the soil of the camp itself — soil suffused throughout with the remains of Holocaust victims. Similarly, AJCommittee must replace the secret, closed process that led to the decision to build this trench. In its place it should initiate a process that is completely transparent, and open to the input of all interested parties and constituencies. We believe that this would lead to a memorial adjacent to the sacred soil, not on top of it.
Furthermore, AJCommittee must sever all connections with those complicit in digging — or countenancing the digging of — holes into the victims’ remains. This includes former museum officials, some of whom, according to the transfer agreement between the museum and AJCommittee, maintain their involvement in the project. Had any individual defiled the dead at, for example, the World Trade Center, that person would surely have been barred from continued involvement in the memorial effort there. The same must be true for Belzec.
Avi Weiss is senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a longtime activist for Jewish causes and human rights.