Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Polish Nazi death camp neglected no more

LOOKING BACK A new memorial at the Belzec death camp is part of Poland's efforts to recognize that much of the Holocaust took place on German-occupied Polish soil


For decades, neglect had taken a grisly toll at the former Nazi death camp in Belzec, profaning the final resting place of half a million Jews.

With yesterday's opening of a new memorial, the site will finally be seen in a more honorable and hallowed way. The site is less notorious than Auschwitz or Treblinka, but it was the first Nazi camp to operate gas chambers. The victims will be more fully recognized.

Sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Polish government, the memorial is a sign of post-communist Poland's efforts to commemorate that much of the Holocaust took place on German-occupied Polish soil.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski was to speak at the inauguration ceremony in the southeastern Polish town near the Ukrainian border.

Belzec was set up purely to kill, and most of the victims were Jews. One of six Nazi death camps in Poland, it operated only from March to December 1942.

In communist times until 1989, a monument commemorated "victims of fascism" in general, reflecting an official line that Jews felt did not reflect their suffering.

Even after communism fell, the site was littered with garbage and local people took shortcuts across it.

Ash and shards of bone were continuously brought to the surface by wind and rain -- a desecration because Jewish religious law says remains must not be moved or disturbed.

Miles Lerman, who chaired the council overseeing the Holocaust Museum in Washington, launched the project more than 10 years ago.

"Throughout the years, Belzec fell into oblivion and terrible disarray, with the mass graves littered with beer bottles and other garbage," he said.

"It was heartbreaking to see it in this condition," added Lerman, whose lost his mother, sister and other family members at Belzec. "And we resolved not to rest until we get this place restored to the decency the victims deserve."

The killing went so quickly at Belzec that there are almost no documents about the victims, said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the AJC, the project leader.

They were brought in by train and sent straight to the gas chambers, without their names ever being registered.

"So there were virtually no survivors. We know only of two," Baker said. "There is no firsthand testimony from victims."

After closing the camp, the Nazis dug up the bodies, burned and crushed them, then reburied the remains in 33 mass graves to try to hide evidence of their crimes. They planted trees and built a house over the graves.

As part of the project, organizers pulled down the trees planted by the Nazis, leaving only older ones in place.

The memorial includes a large barren terrain symbolizing a burial ground, which includes actual mass graves, and a museum.

The American Jewish Committee, said archaeological excavations and examination of the site by rabbis had determined that the pathway that crosses the site will not disturb any of the mass graves.

Norman Salsitz, a Polish-born 84-year-old who lost 23 family members at Belzec, was traveling from his home in Springfield, New Jersey, to attend the inauguration -- his first return to Poland since he left in 1947.

"I never went back because I didn't want to walk on ground soaked with Jewish blood," he said. "But I think this memorial is very important."

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