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Criticism erupts over tooth shown at Holocaust memorial ceremony

BERLIN—Almost everything about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Germany's newest monument to the victims of Nazi terrorism, has been controversial. Now, a tooth intended as an emotional tribute to victims has angered Jews just days after the memorial's dedication.

Lea Rosh brandished the tooth Tuesday during the memorial's opening ceremony. Rosh, the driving force behind the memorial, said she'd picked it up 17 years ago near a mass grave in Belzec, a Polish concentration camp. She vowed then to create a monument and had carried the tooth with her since. She announced that she would place the tooth in one of the 2,711 concrete columns that make up the memorial.

That's where the problems started.

"When she held up the tooth, I thought I might vomit," said Albert Meyer, the chairman of the Berlin Jewish Community. "Had she actually been carrying a piece of a dead Jew in her pocket for 17 years?"

Meyer said the Jewish community was indebted to Rosh for years of dedication, but that the Hollywood-esque flourish of the tooth was in shockingly bad taste.

"I've consulted with many rabbis on this, and there's no way to say that it honors our traditions, that it's anything but disgusting," he said, adding that the tooth should be reburied, either in a Jewish cemetery or back in Belzec. "This looks like a way of telling the world it's her personal monument."

Rosh, whose office said she was unavailable Thursday, was quoted by German news outlets as saying the controversy was overblown, that her actions were out of respect. She said she'd consulted with a rabbi before deciding to place the tooth in the memorial. Only entire corpses or large body parts needed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, she said.

"My critics need to get better informed," she told DDP, a German wire service.

It's not the first time she's come in for criticism.

Without fail, government officials and Jewish groups credit her for momentum and direction for the project, which was financed with $35 million that the German Parliament approved in 1999. But many of the same people criticize her for grandstanding and for claiming too much ownership of a public project. In media reports, she's even been called a "Holocaust Cassandra" and a "professional Jew," though her Jewish identity is debatable: While her maternal grandfather was Jewish, she was baptized a Protestant and told a German magazine she's an atheist.

Wolfgang Thierse, the president of the parliament, noted that the first he'd heard of the tooth was during Tuesday's ceremony, despite the fact that he's been deeply involved in the project for years.

Thursday, the first day the memorial was open to the public, hundreds of visitors wandered among its rectangular blocks, arranged on a rolling floor. Newspapers, however, were filled with outrage.

Berliner Zeitung, in a commentary headlined, "Lea's Cult of Relics," criticized Rosh for trying to claim private rights to a public memorial, and even noted: "We don't know if the tooth belonged to a victim, or perhaps a perpetrator. We will never know."

The tabloid Berliner Kurier ran a full-page photo of her holding up the tooth at the ceremony, next to the words, "Lea Rosh proudly presents her concentration camp trophy."

The respected Sueddeutsche Zeitung simply noted that "Jews consider boycott."

Paul Spiegel, the president of the German Central Council of Jews, who spoke alongside Rosh at the dedication, said he appreciated all the work Rosh had put in on the memorial. But, he added, body parts can't be taken from graves and placed randomly.

"I'm appalled," he said in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine. "This is irreverent behavior."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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