A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing Jewish victims. Brest, Belarus February 2019..
(photo credit: VASILY FEDOSENKO / REUTERS)
In January, memories of the Holocaust were once again brought up when a mass grave was discovered in Brest, Belarus on the construction site of a new luxury apartment block.
Since the discovery, the bones of 1,214 people, most believed to have been Jews, were excavated from the site, tangled with shreds of cloth and the soles of shoes.
Dmitry Kaminsky, a Belarusian soldier running excavations, said earlier this year that some of the skulls bore bullet holes, suggesting that victims were executed by a shot to the back of the head.
The city of Brest, then part of the Soviet Union, was attacked on June 22nd 1941, the first day of Hitler's invasion. Reports say the German forces may have shot up to 5,000 people in the first few days after the city fell. Around 20,000 Jews were forced into a ghetto in late 1941. The ghetto was in existence until it was liquidated in October 1942.
A famous native of Brest, Menachem Begin, missed the Nazi invasion, serving a sentence in Soviet labor camps, instead.
The World Jewish Congress said it was "dismayed by the construction of an apartment building" on land that contained victims of the Holocaust, and said it was "an affront to the memory of the Jewish residents who were shot and murdered in cold blood at that very site."
In response, Brest Mayor Alexandr Rogachuk said that the city had many unmarked gravesites due to the ferocious fighting that took place there. He said in March, “Everyone here is a sinner in this respect. We are all walking on bodies.”
While it was known that the building site might contain “a few dozen” bodies, the mayor said, “nobody expected such a large number.”
Accusations were directed towards Belarusian authorities that they have attempted to keep the discovery quiet but local official Alla Konduk denied any such intention of the authorities, saying a special forensic military unit was called to the site in January as soon as discovery of the first bones was made known to city authorities.
Konduk also said the foundations of the housing development would not be built on the grave, and that construction would resume soon. After discussions with the city's small Jewish community, Konduk also said that it was agreed to bury all the bones recovered on May 21 in a Jewish cemetery in the north of the city.