Avi Weiss rekindles battle to block camp memorial

NEW YORK — The struggle over a $4 million Holocaust memorial at the notorious Belzec death camp in Poland is flaring anew.

Activist Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York as well as Rosa Sacharin of Glasgow, Scotland, are suing the American Jewish Committee, which is helping to finance the project, to block construction of a path through the Polish camp.

"This is an effort to stop the continued construction of a 600-foot long, 30-foot-deep trench through a graveyard of murdered Jews," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Steven Lieberman.

But the executive director of the AJCommittee, David Harris, derided the lawsuit as "frivolous."

"We are confident the New York court will dismiss this case simply because it is completely without merit," he said.

The Nazis gassed to death an estimated 600,000 Jews at Belzec in southeastern Poland during World War II, then burned and ground up many bodies and buried the remains, hoping to hide evidence of mass murder. Only a few people are believed to have survived the camp.

Critics of the memorial say the construction will unearth the buried ash and bone of the camp's victims.

The AJCommittee denies that, insisting that the planned walkway will prevent pedestrians from roaming the grounds as they've done for years.

The July 18 suit seeking an injunction against the AJCommittee was filed in the Supreme Court of the state of New York.

The lawsuit is just the latest chapter in Weiss' campaign to block the path through the camp, where he lost seven relatives in the Holocaust.

For more than a year Weiss waged a media campaign against the memorial. Last month, Holocaust survivor Norman Salsitz, 83, of Livingston, N.J., sued the AJCommittee in U.S. District Court in Washington, echoing many of Weiss' arguments.

Weiss's group, AMCHA-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, sent out press releases touting the lawsuit. However, Salsitz, who lost 23 relatives at Belzec, withdrew his complaint earlier this month, saying his wife was ill and he could not proceed with the suit.

Salsitz insists he was acting on his own throughout the affair.

Asked how Sacharin, a resident of Glasgow, got involved in the fight over the memorial, Lieberman said she contacted AMCHA after visiting Belzec. When pressed, he said he had called Sacharin, but he added that he couldn't remember who had supplied her contact information.

Sacharin believes her brother perished in Belzec, the suit states. The only documentation she has about her brother's death is a 1942 Red Cross letter stating that he was living in the Polish town of Rzeszow, from which many Jews were believed to have been deported to Belzec, the suit states.

Sacharin will not speak publicly about the lawsuit, Lieberman said.

The AJCommittee assumed co-sponsorship of the memorial with the government of Poland last year after the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington ran the project for about a decade.

Dozens of excavations in Belzec between 1997 and 1999 pinpointed the existence of 33 mass graves, allowing construction on the memorial to proceed while avoiding Jewish remains, AJCommittee officials say.

Any remains that do turn up will be buried in the mass graves and sealed, the officials say. Rabbinic authorities have approved of the AJCommittee's plans.

The museum will revive a long-neglected site and mark the first time in 60 years an effort has been made to memorialize Belzec, they add.

"For decades the site has been totally and tragically neglected," said Harris, who added he visited the camp five years ago to find fields strewn with litter.

"This memorial will finally explain the full story of Belzec, pay tribute to the victims, provide a permanent protection for the mass graves, and serve as a reminder that we should never forget."