Letter from Belzec*

Letter from Belzec*

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Belzec*
June 3, 2004

We stand in a place that is at once sacred and accursed.

We bow our heads in loving memory of the hundreds of thousands of Jews whose lives were destroyed here over a ten-month period in 1942.

We recoil in horror and, yes, incomprehension, even after all these years, at the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Imagine: Nearly one in ten Jewish victims of the Holocaust was murdered in the gas chambers of this tiny space, which measures less than fifteen acres.

We are here, above all, to declare that we have not forgotten, we cannot forget those who perished here, despite the meticulous Nazi attempt to erase every last vestige of this killing field.

We have not forgotten, we cannot forget, first, how our fellow Jews were murdered. But just as important, we have not forgotten, we cannot forget, how they lived their lives, contributed to world civilization, practiced their faith, and yearned for better times to come.

And we are here to declare that we shall never forget, we dare never forget.

We owe it to the martyred. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to future generations.

We take to heart the searing words of Job (16:18) inscribed on the memorial wall here: "Earth, do not cover my blood. Let there be no resting place for my outcry."

This extermination camp, now finally demarcated, protected, and memorialized after decades of neglect and desecration, stands as a stark and permanent reminder of man's seemingly limitless capacity for inhumanity.

Let no one ever seek to ignore, deny, trivialize, or underestimate that capacity for inhumanity. The fate of the world may hang in the balance.

But our presence here today, hundreds of Jews and non-Jews alike, including the Polish president and other leading dignitaries, also serves as a reminder, I trust, of man's capacity for humanity—for compassion, solidarity, and remembrance.

It stands as an object lesson in the unexpected and hopeful possibilities of history, against the backdrop of unparalleled tragedy.

Could anyone sixty years ago have imagined that three years after the war's end the sovereign Jewish state of Israel would be established, and that state would serve as home and haven to millions of Jews from around the world?

Could anyone sixty years ago have imagined an Israeli embassy in Warsaw, whose ambassador is with us for this auspicious occasion?

Could anyone sixty years ago have imagined that the Jews, defenseless in the Shoah, would create a military force in Israel, proudly represented here today by 150 officers who have come as a sign of homage and respect, that time and again would show unimaginable courage and determination defeating those bent on destroying the state?

Could anyone sixty years ago have imagined a Poland free of occupation, at peace with its neighbors, now linked organically to twenty-four other democratic European nations, including Germany, and serving as a vital bridge between Europe and the United States?

And could anyone sixty years ago have imagined a Jewish community—only a tiny fraction of its former self, but proud and vibrant nonetheless—here in Poland, having reemerged from the ashes of the Shoah, followed by decades of communist oppression, to carry on the rich Jewish tradition that has been an essential part of the Polish landscape for more than 800 years?

No, none of these striking developments can fill the void created by the Shoah. None can bring back the six million. None can return a childhood to the millions of youngsters denied one.

But they do underscore for us what is possible if only we dare to dream dreams, unite in common purpose, and match our strength to our convictions.

Let us never forget that it is we—governments, civic institutions, faith communities, and individuals—who must remain vigilant in defense of the precious gift of liberty and united in opposition to any form of tyranny.

Belzec reminds us why.

It is we who must educate others, especially our youth, about the frighteningly short distance from dehumanizing a people to destroying that people.

Belzec reminds us why.

It is we who must affirm Israel's importance to the Jewish people worldwide as a beacon of hope and oasis of freedom.

Belzec reminds us why.

And it is we who must sound the clarion call about the danger of contemporary antisemitism, which demonizes the Jewish people and justifies violence against Jews and Jewish institutions, wherever they may be.

Belzec reminds us why.

We would not be here today dedicating this memorial site and museum were it not for the single-minded vision of one man, Miles Lerman, son of Poland, citizen of the United States. He made it his mission to create this memorial. He was ably assisted by the staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He deserves our everlasting gratitude.

This historic project was implemented through an agreement between the government of Poland and the American Jewish Committee. We were honored and humbled to be asked to assume this historic responsibility. I especially wish to acknowledge the role of AJC's Rabbi Andrew Baker in bringing this project to fruition. And our Polish partners could not have been more cooperative, dedicated, and sensitive to our concerns. The results speak for themselves.

In the Jewish tradition, we are commanded to remember, zahor.

We do so today—enveloped by haunting memories, excruciating pain, and overwhelming loss.

But we also do so, I hope, affirming an unshakable resolve to build and defend a more humane world. Let this be our enduring legacy to those whose lives we mourn in this sacred and accursed place.

* Adapted from a speech given at a dedication ceremony in Belzec, Poland. Belzec, located in the southeastern corner of Poland, near the Ukrainian border, was one of the seven most notorious death camps in Poland together with Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek-Lublin, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Date: 6/3/2004
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