By Alan Elsner, Special to The Washington Post
The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page D01
In a back room at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum just off the Mall,
Jacek Nowakowski, the Polish-born curator of acquisitions and research, is
laboring over a new exhibit, patiently sifting through archives, assembling
rare photographs and documents. But visitors to the museum in Washington
will never see this display. Early next year, it will be boxed up and
shipped off to Belzec, a small town in eastern Poland near the Ukrainian
border. There, it will become an integral part of a new memorial to more
than half a million Jews, gassed to death in the space of less than a year
Holocaust memorial in Poland near Ukraine..entrance
Photo American Jewish Committee
(Click on images to enlarge them)
The Belzec memorial, due to be formally inaugurated next spring, is
especially significant because it is being built on the site of one of the
six Nazi extermination camps in Poland where the bulk of the 6 million
Jewish victims of the Holocaust were murdered. It will also be a Holocaust
memorial unlike any other. Visitors will be confronted with a flat,
featureless site bereft of vegetation, covered with gravel.
As they enter, they will begin to descend a path about 180 yards long that
will slowly take them deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Earth. Walls
will rise above them on either side as they continue to descend, finally
reaching a point 60 feet beneath the surface where they will come to a halt
facing a wall of remembrance. To one side, they will see the names of
individual victims as well as of the scores of Jewish communities that met
their end in Belzec.
"We were looking for a memorial appropriate to the scale and scope of what
happened at a site where perhaps as many as one in 10 of all victims of the
Holocaust were murdered," said Michael Berenbaum, a member of the jury that
chose the winning design submitted by Polish architect Andrzej Solyga. "This
design had power and majesty. The visitor will descend, walking as a
pilgrim, entering a terrain without an easy exit. It evokes the experience
of people confronted with no way to escape. It will not be an easy
experience, but it's not meant to be."
The memorial, shown above under construction in September 2003, to be
formally inaugurated next spring 
Photo American Jewish Committee
After reaching the wall, visitors will move along a side path around the
camp perimeter, finally entering the museum, where they will see the
exhibits designed in Washington and learn about the unique and evil role
Belzec played in world history.
I first visited the site of the Belzec extermination camp in 1993. I was
researching a book about my father's experiences during the Second World War
and suggested that we travel to the place where his parents as well as many
aunts, uncles and cousins had perished. But the camp proved difficult to
find. There was not a single signpost in the village pointing to it. We
finally found it, a couple of miles out of town next to a sawmill, beside a
railway line. There was no parking area. We pulled up next to the gate,
beside a private house from which pop music was blaring on the radio. We
were the only visitors. We entered the site and began to walk around.
There was not a single Jewish emblem -- not a Hebrew word, not a Star of
David, although there was a small statue of the Virgin Mary among the trees.
The place was overgrown with weeds; the steps surrounding the central
memorial were crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a
shortcut home through the camp. The main memorial consisted of a sculpture
of two emaciated figures clutching one another, erected by the Polish
Communist authorities in the 1960s.
For my father, the experience was overwhelming. As soon as we entered he was
overcome with great, shuddering sobs. Yet there was nothing to give a sense
of comfort or consolation. I was overcome by deep anger. How did this sacred
site, this place of horror and evil and martyrdom, come to be so neglected,
In Jacek Nowakowski's exhibit, there is a single chilling quotation that
explains the historic significance of Belzec. In his book "Ordinary Men,"
historian Christopher Browning wrote: "In mid-March 1942, some 75 to 80
percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25
percent had perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the
percentages were exactly reversed." Belzec was key to this equation. It was
the first mass extermination camp, the place where the Nazis perfected their
use of the gas chamber. It achieved an average kill rate of 50,000 a month.
There were four primitive extermination cells. Carbon monoxide gas from
diesel engines was pumped in to kill the victims.
An SS officer, one Lt. Gerstein, saw one gassing. He described how the Jews
were packed into the gas chamber so tightly they could not move. When the
doors closed, the diesel engine would not work. Finally after three hours,
it stuttered to life. "Up till then people were alive in these chambers -- 4
times 750 people in 4 times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes went by.
True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At
last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead," Gerstein wrote. They stood there,
he wrote, "like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to
Despite its phenomenal killing record, the Germans shut down Belzec early in
1943. They were running out of space for the bodies, which were dumped in
nearby anti-tank ditches. Virtually all the Jewish communities in southern
and eastern Poland with easy rail links to Belzec had already been
destroyed. By then, the Nazis had built other extermination camps at
Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz, where they intended to murder all the Jews
still living in the rest of Poland, and then the rest of Europe.
When they closed the camp, the Germans tried to erase telltale signs. Bodies
were removed from mass graves, bones were crushed with a special machine,
the remains were burned and the ashes scattered. Only two or three Jews
survived Belzec and few of the Germans who operated the camp were identified
or brought to justice. Through the long years of Communist rule, the site
disrepair and was half-forgotten, except by historians and the relatives of
who had perished there.
Returning to Washington, I wrote several articles about what I had seen and
began to receive telephone calls from others who had visited the site. A
determination began to build among the relatives of survivors that a new
memorial must be built. But it was only when Miles Lerman threw himself into
project that it really took off.
A leader in the effort to build the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Lerman
was then serving as its chairman. Remarkably, Lerman had grown up only five
miles from Belzec and knew the place well. His family had owned a flour mill
across the road from the site of the camp. His mother, his sister and three
nephews had all died there within sight of the family business. Lerman
himself spent the war fighting along with partisans in eastern Poland.
"I was determined to see this project through, not just because my family
died there but because half a million Jews died there. I was not prepared to
allow them to go into oblivion. On one of my own visits, I saw beer bottles
and condoms littering the ground. It was a desecration," he said.
Lerman threw all his resources and prestige into the effort. In 1995 he
negotiated an agreement with the post-Communist Polish authorities to build
a new memorial. The parties agreed to split the costs, with the Polish
government picking up half and the other half to be raised privately by Jews
in the United States and elsewhere.
"This project has been a model of cooperation. When we have had problems, we
have worked them out constructively and amicably. This shows that Poles and
Jews can work together to preserve historic memory," said Lerman.
Later, the American Jewish Committee stepped forward as the main U.S.
sponsor of the project. In 1997 the design for the new memorial was chosen,
and in the following years, an archaeological survey pinpointed the
locations of 33 mass graves that were previously unknown. Historians gained
valuable new understanding about the way the extermination camp had
functioned, including its exact dimensions, the locations of key structures
and the disposal of human remains.
Then the project stalled. Not everybody, it seemed, liked the new design.
One New York rabbi in particular tried to block it. In articles and in legal
action, Avi Weiss, the senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale,
has argued that the descending passage has disturbed the human remains of
camp victims. He described it as a gash ripping through the tortured remains
of the victims, and argued that it sent a signal that it was permissible to
dig into the remains of the dead.
The American Jewish Committee's agreement with Poland took care to protect
human remains. Construction was supervised by Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the
Orthodox rabbi serving Warsaw and Lodz. He in turn sought counsel from Rabbi
Elyakim Schlesinger, regarded as the foremost ultra-Orthodox authority on
the preservation of Jewish cemeteries in Europe, before allowing the project
to move forward.
"Every effort has been made in every respect, with rabbinical supervision,
to try to protect the dignity of the site. Everybody understands that what
is being done is to protect this site for all time and to restore to the
victims the dignity they deserve," said AJC Executive Director David Harris.
For Lerman, Nowakowski and many others whose loved ones perished at Belzec,
the central point is that the memory of the victims be preserved. The Belzec
memorial promises to do so in a dignified, powerful and appropriate way.
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