The remains of more than 1,000 Holocaust victims that were unearthed in a mass grave during construction work in a southern Belarusian city earlier this year were laid to rest Wednesday.
Belarus was home to a large, vibrant Jewish community before the Second World War, and the discovery of remains of at least 1,214 people in January shocked many still scarred by memories of the Holocaust.
The remains were buried in 120 coffins emblazoned with a Star of David at a cemetery outside town attended by city officials, Jewish community leaders and diplomats. The burial was conducted by volunteers from the ZAKA Jewish search and rescue organization and overseen by the local Chabad rabbi.
Brest was one of the first Soviet Union towns to be attacked by Nazi Germany troops and fell into German hands in July 1941. Like elsewhere in eastern Europe, the Nazi administration set up a Jewish ghetto. An estimated 28,000 people were confined there until it was destroyed in October 1942 when 17,000 residents were taken out of town and executed. The fate of the others remains unknown.
To the dismay of Jewish leaders, Brest city officials stopped short of canceling the building permit on the site where remains of other victims might still be found.
Regina Simonenko, head of the local Jewish community Brisk, lamented that authorities rushed to bury the remains and continue with the building project instead of running DNA tests to establish identities.
“We were told that DNA tests are expensive and take a long time,” Simonenko told The Associated Press.
The World Jewish Congress decried the construction project as “an affront to the memories of the Jewish residents of the city who were shot and murdered in cold blood at that very site.”
City authorities insist that the apartment block’s foundation does not overlap with the burial site. Authorities have promised to put up a monument in the area and not build anything on the mass grave.
“There will be nothing but the lawn on the burial site,” Brest Mayor Alexander Rogachuk said. “We’re not even going to put up parking spaces or playgrounds there.”
To Simonenko, that promise is not enough.
“We’re talking about a large ghetto,” she said. “We’re not sure that there won’t be other burial sites discovered there.”
Belarusian authorities and contractors have been criticized in the past — including as recently as 2017 in Gomel — for building atop Jewish cemeteries.