- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

On June 3, political leaders and Jewish representatives assembled at the Belzec death camp in southeastern Poland to witness the unveiling of a memorial to the approximately 600,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis. The memorial design consists of a wall, a small museum, a fence enclosing the site and a trench cutting through the entire length of the camp. Since the death camp had been neglected for years, any attempt to bring honor to the victims of Belzec seemingly would have been welcome.

The sad reality, however, is that despite the well-meaning intentions of those involved in the project, this memorial will not commemorate the dead properly. On the contrary, it has, I believe, resulted in the single greatest desecration ever of the remains of Holocaust victims.

While most of the memorial plans for the Belzec death camp are laudable, it is the trench that is particularly objectionable. In order to create this trench, human remains were desecrated in unprecedented ways.

By December 1942, in an attempt to hide their crimes, the Nazis disinterred many of the victims’ bodies,crematedthemand dumped them into great burial pits. Moreover, the surface of Belzec is strewn all over with the bones and ashes of Holocaust victims.

In preparation for gouging out the trench, an archaeological survey was conducted to locate the mass graves at Belzec. There was never any guarantee that the systematic drilling could successfully identify the location of all the mass graves; there was, on the other hand, abundant evidence that it would result in unimaginable desecrations. Many of the 2,000 drillings penetrated mass graves, boring into Holocaust victim remains. The entire process was described in great detail in Andrzej Kola’s “Belzec: The Nazi Camp for Jews in the Light of Archaeological Sources — Excavations 1997-1999,” a book co-published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the project’s initial sponsor. Interestingly, this book has disappeared without a trace from the museum’s catalog and is now virtually unobtainable.

It is painfully obvious that if there were no trench, then there would have been no need to find the mass graves, and, in turn, no need to desecrate the remains of Holocaust victims. Was the trench a necessary element to the memorial, a price that simply had to be paid in order for there to be any Belzec commemoration at all? The answer, quite simply, is no. Any number of alternative designs could have been chosen; there were no restrictions imposed by the Polish government, a partner in the effort. Regrettably, it appears that the bones and ashes were disturbed simply to fulfill the artistic vision of a trench running through the death camp in order to intensify the experience of visitors.

Now that the damage has been done, why are we still speaking out? After all, there is no way to “unbuild” the trench, no way to “undesecrate” the remains. There is, however, still time to prevent this precedent from becoming the norm — but barely. Once we allow remains to be disturbed “for the greater good,” there is no telling where it will lead. In Belzec, remains were desecrated to create a memorial for the victims themselves. Perhaps next time it will be to build a Jewish community center, or a pipeline, or a soccer stadium, which is precisely what is taking place now in Babi Yar (Ukraine), Mozyr (Belarus) and Grodno (Belarus), respectively.

It is not too late to protest the treatment of the Belzec victims. Visitors to the memorial should know that in walking through this trench they are condoning the desecration that enabled it to be built. Pressing against the walls of this trench, as visitors make their way through it, are the mass graves of the Holocaust dead, whose voices cry out for justice.

As one who has lost many relatives in the Holocaust, including at Belzec, I will pay my respects outside the camp, not inside the trench. Visit Belzec, yes, but honor the dead by refusing to descend into the trench that has so violated — and continues to violate — their repose. Honor the dead by resolving that no such desecration occurs again at the sites where Holocaust victims have already suffered so terribly.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and president of Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns.

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