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Belarus town built of hundreds of recycled Jewish gravestones

Residents of Brest find old tombstones lining the foundations of their infrastructure and homes

Illustrative photo of smashed tombstones in a Jewish cemetery. (AP/Hans Punz)
Illustrative photo of smashed tombstones in a Jewish cemetery. (AP/Hans Punz)

A small town in Belarus has discovered hundreds of old Jewish gravestones lining the very foundations of its buildings and streets, Vice Magazine reported over the weekend.

Recent demolition work to make way for a new supermarket in the town of Brest, near the Polish border, revealed over 450 gravestones inside the foundations of homes, the report said. Around fifteen hundred gravestones have been found in the town’s houses, pavements, roads and gardens over the past six years, with more being discovered every day.

The chilling phenomenon is apparently the result of a Russian communist practice in the 1950s, that of recycling Jewish headstones from communities decimated by the Nazis for construction materials.

Debra Brunner, co-director of a UK charity which supports disadvantaged communities in the former Soviet Union, The Together Plan, visited a 19th century fortress in Brest where many of the gravestones are being kept temporarily. She told Vice: “I can’t even begin to explain what it felt like to actually stand among the graves. Picture a huge mound of freshly dug mud with Jewish headstones coming out at all angles. It was a macabre sight.”

Efforts are being made to find a way to preserve the stones and set up a memorial site in which to keep them, though at present many of them remain strewn about, vulnerable “to the weather and to the whims of the public,” according to the magazine.

Artur Livshyts, who heads up the Together Plan in Belarus, said that the reaction in Brest to the morbid finds “is mostly a positive one.” He said,

“The Jewish community care deeply that the stones come to rest in a place dedicated as a memorial, and the wider non-Jewish community generally show concern and really do care for these stones too,” said Artur Livshyts of The Together Plan. “Even the builders on the supermarket site stopped work to move the stones to one side and took the time to alert the Jewish community.”

In August the City of Warsaw agreed to return and preserve 1,000 Jewish headstones that were used to construct a recreational facility inside one of the city’s parks.

The headstones, which are currently part of a pergola and stairs at a park in Warsaw’s Praga district, will be returned in the coming months to the Brudo Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, according to a statement Friday by that led talks on the subject with city officials.

The city allocated a budget of $180,000 for the project, according to Jonny Daniels, the Israel-based founder of From the Depths, an international commemoration nonprofit.

The pergola at Praga district is one of countless sites scattered across Poland in which Jewish tombstones were used as construction material, according to Daniels, whose group earlier this year brought dozens of Israeli lawmakers to a meeting with counterparts from Poland and other countries, and a visit to the Auschwitz death camp on the 69th anniversary of its liberation.

“In the 1950s, the communists were in full swing of building structures and monuments out of matzevas, which they often broke into pieces,” Daniels said, using the Hebrew word for a Jewish tombstone.

From the Depths’ involvement in the subject is part of the organization’s Matzeva Project, which aims to restore an estimated one million gravestones hidden in buildings and urban spaces. The Jewish Historical Institute and the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, are official partners of the project.

JTA contributed to this report.

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