Belzec: Past and Present




It’s not exactly a household name.


But during World War II, Belzec, a small town in southeastern Poland, was one of the main Nazi death camps in the occupied country, along with Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.


As many as 500,000 Jews were murdered there by the Nazis. Astonishingly, the camp operated for no more than ten months.


By the end of 1942 it was shut down, and an extensive effort was undertaken to hide any trace of it.


The Nazis almost succeeded, helped by the jarring fact that only two people were believed to have survived Belzec. One was killed in a postwar pogrom in Poland, the other took his own life years later.


For decades after the war, the camp, the size of a couple of football fields, was little more than an open area strewn with litter, used as a shortcut in the town, and marked only by a modest plaque.


The communists, who ruled Poland at the time, had little interest in highlighting the Holocaust as a genocide against the Jewish people, though it was the Soviet army that liberated Auschwitz. The Kremlin and its satellites were not eager to generate potential sympathy for the Jews.


But after the remarkable events of 1989-1991, when the USSR, Warsaw Pact, and Berlin Wall all saw their last days, dramatic opportunities emerged to write new pages of history – and revisit old ones.


Miles Lerman was a Polish-born Jew who had fought with the partisans against the Nazis, while losing most of his family at Belzec. After the war, he came to the U.S., but never forgot what happened from 1939 to 1945. That explained his drive to help create the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and then, he hoped, a memorial to the victims of Belzec.


Knowing of AJC’s close ties with Poland after 1989, he approached us and asked if we would undertake a project at Belzec, in partnership with the Polish government.


What had previously been unimaginable became possible.


In an entirely new spirit of Polish-Jewish cooperation, we worked together over the course of several years. It was a massive undertaking, fraught with any number of challenges.


Throughout, there were two driving forces.


For Poland, it was Andrzej Przewoznik, the Secretary-General of the Polish Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom sites. Tragically, he was on the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his entourage that crashed near Smolensk in 2010.


For AJC, it was Rabbi Andrew Baker, who heroically persevered, through thick and thin, to spearhead the effort.


In June 2004, a thousand invited guests, including the president and prime minister of Poland, the ambassadors of Israel, the United States, and several other countries, a special envoy of Pope John Paul II, Jewish and non-Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, and 150 officers of the Israel Defense Forces, gathered at Belzec.


More than 60 years after serving as the location of mass murder – where nearly 2,000 women, men, and children were killed daily – the site had been demarcated, protected, and memorialized, with a museum added to educate future generations about what had happened there. (See the AJC film about Belzec.)


As several speakers noted at the time, the project was unique, arguably the most ambitious, creative, and fitting effort of its kind anywhere.


This week, we mark the tenth anniversary of the Belzec project, with Polish, Israeli, and American guests in attendance.


Somehow, the gathering seems even more timely and necessary than ever.


To be sure, it is an occasion to recall what happened in 1942, lest anyone forget – or trivialize, rationalize, or deny – the lives that were extinguished for the sole reason that they were Jews.


It is also a stark lesson that we must never suffer from a failure of imagination about man’s capacity for evil.


And it is an opportunity to remember that, had Israel existed prior to the Second World War, many Jews might have found refuge there instead of deportation to the gas chambers of Belzec.


But, alas, there was no Israel. Nor were the ruling British in Mandatory Palestine ready to ease entry for Europe’s trapped Jews, nor were other nations lining up to issue visas to Jews, when emigration from Europe was still possible.


The event at Belzec also has lessons about the present. There are clouds on the horizon. However different the times may be, there’s reason for concern.


As President Barack Obama noted, we are witnessing a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” today, most notably in Europe (the tide has always been dangerously high in important parts of the Muslim world).


EU surveys document the growing anxiety of Europe’s Jews. Anti-Semitic attacks are on the increase, including the murder of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May. The New York Times (June 21) reported that emigration from France to Israel, driven largely by fear for the future, is running well ahead of previous years. Several neo-Nazis and other racists have just been elected to five-year terms in the European Parliament.


Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has chosen this moment – when vast swaths of the Arab Middle East are experiencing chaos and mayhem, when three Israeli youngsters have been kidnapped by terrorists, and when Israel’s putative peace partner, the Palestinian Authority, has entered into a “unity” government with Hamas, a group openly bent on the Jewish state’s total destruction – to single out democratic Israel, of all the world’s nations, for divestment.


Moreover, despite the international community’s hopes for a credible diplomatic solution, Iran continues to advance its nuclear ambitions and develop its ICBM capability, while calling for the elimination of Israel – and its eight million citizens – from the global map.


And, reflecting a troubling moral fog, New York’s legendary Metropolitan Opera is planning eight performances of The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera takes the 1985 murder by Palestinian gunmen of a 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound American Jew, on an Italian cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea, and, in the words of his two daughters, “rationalizes terrorism and tries to find moral equivalence between the murderers and the murdered.”


In other words, the gathering at Belzec this week is very much about remembering the past – but also about grappling with the present and preparing for the future.