BREST, Belarus — A frozen, stony tendril pokes through the damp leaves clumped along the base of one of the burned out houses of the Warburg Colony, where destitute Jews were provided homes after World War I. Nearby, surrounded by leaf litter, plastic bottles, pill packs and condom wrappers, some engraved stone books show through, and beneath them Hebrew letters in the memory of “a man young in years, plucked at the age of 23.” These are decorations atop two Jewish gravestones, two among thousands demolished by the Soviets six decades ago that have surfaced in this western Belarusian city over the past decade.
Since they began turning up after the fall of the USSR, efforts to preserve the headstones have failed to make any progress. Members of the tiny local community have even turned to Israel and the US of late, without much success, for help in erecting a monument to the thousands of Jews who once called this border town home.
Most of the stones that have been collected have, in an ironic historical twist, found refuge a 15-minute drive from the old Warburg Colony at the Brest Fortress, a 19th century Russian fortification straddling the confluence of the Muchavets and Bug rivers, which now serves as a shrine to Soviet soldiery.
They’ve been heaped in mounds beneath a brick vault in one of the fortress’s northern earthworks alongside workshops for the site’s maintenance crews. A crude enclosure made of gravestones stacked 14 high cordons off the accumulation from curious intruders, though few ever venture back there. Some of the gravestones have been stacked in an orderly fashion, like cordwood, but most are strewn in a pile several feet high and some 20 feet in length. A rare few are intact, such as the monumental green lichen-covered tombstone of Rabbi Haim Leib Barit, who died in 5696 (1935/6), but the majority were smashed into tiny fragments, some no larger than a copy of “War and Peace.”
A cursory examination of the stones that are still legible finds them to be adorned with engraved beasts, birds, flowers, Shabbat candles and other Jewish votive items. The Hebrew dates hewn into the stones range from 1868 to 1936, just before the community was extinguished by Nazi Germany.
The Bug River now divides Brest from neighboring Poland. Under the czars, the town was in the heart of the Pale of Settlement, the area of Imperial Russia in which Jews were permitted to reside. Jews first arrived in the medieval town in the 14th century. At its peak at the turn of the 20th century, Brest was nearly 70 percent Jewish.
The gravestones date from after 1830, when the old city of Brest was destroyed to make way for a massive fortress that serves as the modern city’s main tourist attraction. The town was moved a mile to the east, and a new Jewish cemetery was founded on its outskirts.
Brest was a center of Jewish thought and culture for centuries. It was home to the Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty, a family of famed Talmudists whose scion, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, was a seminal figure in the modern Orthodox movement in the United States (and the founder of this author’s high school).
A Belarusian Embassy official in Tel Aviv took pains to point out to me that “Belarus is the birthplace of the State of Israel.”
As a secretary began filling out a visa, he rattled off a list of the Jewish state’s founding generation who were born in the country: ex-presidents Shimon Peres and Chaim Weizmann, both of former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s parents, and prime minister Menachem Begin. Begin grew up in Brest, and a monument was recently raised in his honor in the city center, next to the Jewish school where he studied as a child.
What the third consul failed to mention is what compelled those illustrious souls to leave and found a state of their own far from their birthplace.
Brest fell under Nazi occupation at the outset of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, on July 22, 1941. At the time, the city’s population was just over half Jewish. A census conducted by the German civil administration on October 15, 1942, counted 16,934 Jewish souls out of a population of just over 41,000. The census record for the next day has the Jewish figure struck out, and the population set as 21,462. The Jews of Brest were carted off and killed in the ghastly woods at Bronna Gora.
Though the Nazis planned to destroy the massive cemetery, they left the job only half finished. The rest of the city, including 40 synagogues, was destroyed. (Only one synagogue remained after the war, and it’s since been converted into a cinema.)
Pesach (Paul) Novick, editor of the Morgen Freiheit Yiddish newspaper, visited the city in 1946 and noted that although the city lived, “the Brest Jews, our dearest and most beloved who were brutally murdered by the Nazis – exist no more.”
What remained after the Holocaust fell victim to the Soviets a decade later.
Arkady Bljacher, a spry nonagenarian veteran of the Great Patriotic War, welcomed us into his home in a gray apartment block on the outskirts of the Brest. In his youth he served as an intelligence officer with the Red Army as it advanced from Donetsk to Berlin. A photo Bljacher took of a fellow officer on the ruins of the Reichstag stood on the armoire behind him as he explained how he first started collecting and protecting the gravestones in the 1990s.
Bljacher was born in Minsk and moved to Brest after World War II, as did the rest of the 700 Jews who currently inhabit the city. The city was in ruins for the second time in three decades, and the Soviets rebuilt.
In 1956, the government bulldozed the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town and put up a soccer stadium, a one-bleacher affair, surrounded by a low concrete wall, that wouldn’t seem out of place at a high school. Local residents pilfered the demolished gravestones.
“There was no construction material, so people used what they could, including the tombstones,” Bjacher said. They ended up as paving stones for garden walks and reinforcing slabs for cellars. Some of their new owners chiseled away the Hebrew letters as much as they could.
After gravestones started turning up in 1992, Bljacher pulled some strings and managed to get the stones stored temporarily at the fortress. They’ve remained there ever since.
“Some of the tombstones are probably still under the stadium,” Bljacher said, “along with thousands and thousands of bones.”
In 2002, nearly a decade after he began collecting the stones, Bljacher petitioned the local government to help erect a memorial next to the stadium, on the site of the former cemetery. He and the community received permission to put up a monument using the fragmented gravestones on the bare patch of earth just west of the stadium, but the Brest municipality refused to contribute any funds to the project.
“Everyone who came made promises,” he said. “Ten years of promises.”
New development near the former cemetery site in recent years has turned up hundreds of stones. Just a block away on Pushkin Boulevard, the recent construction of a dormitory and a supermarket unearthed scores of fragments, as well as human remains.
But the modern buildings also threaten another Jewish historic site: the Warburg Colony, a clutch of 12 two-story buildings erected after World War I to house destitute Jews who had lost their homes.
The wooden houses were condemned in 2010 and their residents evicted. Several were bulldozed to make room for college dorms and the supermarket, and the remaining four have been gutted by fire and are inhabited by drifters. An inspection of one house’s cellar revealed no sign of spolia — material pilfered from old ruins for construction — but no shortage of fresh stool.
Sticking out of the dark earth in the overgrown yards, however, were dozens more gravestones that have yet to be collected. There’s no clear estimate of how many more lurk underground.
Local activists are pushing for preservation of one of the houses as a museum, but according to a report on a local website from October 2014, “the Brest-Litovsk authorities do not care for its preservation.”
“When this house is demolished, more Jewish gravestones are bound to turn up,” Artur Livshits, co-director of The Together Plan, a Jewish charity group working to empower Belarus’s dwindling Jewish communities, said as we stood on the boggy ground.
Although the Jewish community would like to see the stones preserved along with the memory of those who once resided in their city, it lacks the funding to properly document the stones and catalog the names upon them. The average annual income in Belarus is a meager $6,000, and an estimated 27% of the population lives below the poverty line. The Jewish community remains heavily reliant upon aid from outside charity organizations such as the American Joint Distribution Committee.
Regina Simonenko, chair of the Jewish community of Brest, said the historical backbone of Jewish communities in Belarus are overlooked by the larger charity organizations operating in the former Soviet republic.
“We can’t do everything ourselves,” she said as we sat in the five-room Jewish community center in the basement of a building on Lenin Boulevard. “The plight of the Jewish Diaspora in small communities like Brest is being overlooked by the big charitable organizations.”
The American Joint Distribution Committee, one of the largest Jewish aid groups operating in the former Soviet republic, told The Times of Israel that it wasn’t involved in any efforts to finance or construct a monument to Brest’s Jewish past.
“JDC is an apolitical, humanitarian organization that provides welfare and renewal services to Jewish communities and individuals in the former Soviet Union,” the organization’s spokesperson said. “JDC is generally not involved in cemetery projects or Holocaust memorials as they are not part of its core mission.”
Brest’s Jewish leadership has turned to the Israeli and American government for help in preserving the remnants of a once-prosperous past. The Together Project, a UK-based charity organization, has helped the Jewish community put together a case for support from American and Israeli institutions to help put up a monument and preserve the stones.
“This is a heritage project that we feel is important for the small existing Jewish community in Brest, as we are hoping it will attract attention to them and give them pride and ownership of an important piece of Jewish history that needs to be preserved,” director Debra Brunner said in an email. “The US Commission for Jewish Heritage Abroad has expressed an interest in supporting this.”
Brunner also attended a recent session of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee to discuss the issue of the graves in Brest. Belarusian Ambassador to Israel Vladimir Skvortsov told the Knesset panel that Minsk “believes in the preservation of the memory of the Jews and of all peoples who suffered in the previous century.”
“The Belarusian people also suffered greatly, and this is the shared history of ours and the Jewish people,” he said at the November hearing. He said that since the turn of the century the Brest municipality has turned up nearly 2,300 stones from beneath the city’s asphalt roadways and is working toward their preservation.
“We are interested in helping preserve the memory, but we can’t raise this initiative alone — we need economic support,” he said.
Although MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) voiced interest in the Israeli government providing financial support for a monument in Brest, there are no immediate plans to do so at the moment. Any assistance for the Jewish community is held up because the country is going to elections in March, Razvozov’s office said.
The Together Plan couldn’t provide an estimated cost for the proposed memorial at the time of publication. For the time being, the project remains frozen.