Saving the remnants of Jewish life in Brest

The Together Plan seeks to create a memorial wall from the headstones of destroyed graves.

September 12, 2019 10:25
Saving the remnants of Jewish life in Brest

Jewish tombstones in Brest, known to Jews as Brisk. (photo credit: PAULA SLIER)

The Belarusian city of Brest won’t mean much to that many people; it meant nothing to me until a few years ago. But it was here where former Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Menachem Begin was born in 1913.

The family of another former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, also came from here. In fact, Sharon’s grandmother was the midwife at Begin’s birth.

Known to Jews as Brisk, the city lines the Polish border along the Bug River. Over the centuries it has changed hands repeatedly – at different times it was part of Lithuania, Poland and the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the USSR, it finally became part of the newly sovereign state of Belarus in 1991.

I first heard its name from my grandmother, Sarah, who was born in Brest but was ashamed to admit it. She did not have fond memories of the place, and the pain of her childhood did not dim as she aged. 

But the one thing she’d sometimes mention was the Bug River. Our family jokes that the meshugas (craziness) in our genes comes from our ancestors drinking water from this river.

A few years ago my father and I visited Brest. “My mother would’ve thought we were meshugeners [crazy people] to come here,” my dad chuckled throughout our trip. But he couldn’t hide his excitement when we finally set eye on this family “heirloom.”
“I always imagined it as a huge river with craft and barges sailing up and down,” my father exclaimed from its shore. He was sorely disappointed.

“I’m looking at it and it’s dirty, and full of green moss,” he declared solemnly. “I had intended to put my toe in the water but I’m afraid something will bite me! One thing I’m convinced of is that our family would’ve really been meshuga to drink from it in the first place, and certainly meshugeners after they’d done so.”

‘We got a call from a reconstruction company that they were clearing the area to lay foundations for a new supermarket, and had uncovered a whole lot of headstones,’ Brunner says (Credit: PAULA SLIER)

But humor soon gave way to sadness and loss. Exploring the Jewish world of my grandmother’s youth uncovered precious little. It is as if a Jewish community, which accounted for more than half of the city’s inhabitants before the Nazis murdered nearly 30,000 of them in 1942, has simply disappeared. In 1944, when the Soviets liberated Brest, only nine Jewish citizens were alive.

There is a Magen David on the ground in front of the house where Begin was born. The Great Synagogue is now a movie theater. Another synagogue serves as a residential building, and the former Jewish hospital, while still a hospital, has nothing Jewish about it. If you look closely, you can see indents on the door frames where the mezuzot were once placed.

Symbolically, the only Jewish reminder of this now vanished world are its tombstones that date back to 1830 – and even they haven’t escaped the vestiges of war.

In the early 1940s, the German army and Nazi SS totally destroyed the main cemetery. In the decades that followed, the Soviet authorities desecrated whatever tombstones had survived to make way for a stadium and playing field.

No one remembers who was first to take the headstones to use as pavement in the basement floors of peoples’ homes and gardens, but what locals do remember is that no one stopped them.

“As children, we played football with the skulls and bones we found here,” a stooped over elderly man, walking past where the cemetery used to be, tells me in Russian. A soccer field has since been built with a parking area and sports club at the one end and an open field at the other.

When I look around, I see broken Jewish tombstones lying among the unruly grass in the backyard of people’s homes.
“No one stopped us,” the old Belarusian man continues. “We were children. I don’t remember about tombstones. Maybe they took them, maybe they didn’t. No one cared about that.”

But in the last 15 years, these tombstones have been surfacing all over the area. While some are broken, others are intact with distinctive Hebrew inscriptions.

Neighboring the cemetery was once the Warburg Colony, a housing district built for the beleaguered Jewish community after World War I. Soon, however, the houses were full of Jewish orphans whose parents had been killed in the war or in violent pogroms. They in turn were murdered by the Nazis, who subsequently used the houses for Soviet prisoners of war. All the buildings have since been torn down.

Debra Brunner, founding director of The Together Plan, says the organization is raising funds to create a memorial wall from reclaimed headstones (Credit: PAULA SLIER)

While they were being demolished, Debra Brunner, founding director of The Together Plan – an initiative that empowers Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to set up and run new projects – was in Brest.

“We got a call from a reconstruction company that they were clearing the area to lay foundations for a new supermarket, and had uncovered a whole lot of headstones,” she says. “It was incredible. They were digging, and headstones were literally coming out of the ground. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was bizarre.”

She pauses to reflect. “They were everywhere. They were in total disarray. The builders were very kind and concerned and wanted to know what they should do with them.”

Brunner knew exactly. She asked them to put them in a pile, and later arranged for them to be moved to Brest fortress where already more than 1,200 headstones from the same cemetery had been collected and stored. About 150 Jewish gravestones were uncovered. Some were still intact; others were broken and damaged.

“We are campaigning to raise funds to create a memorial wall using these reclaimed headstones,” explains Brunner. “The idea is, where possible, to make a detailed list of all the people who were once laid to rest here and return the tombstones to their rightful place. It’s vital that we preserve the past to create a symbol of hope for future generations.”

At this stage, there is nothing above the ground where the old Jewish cemetery used to be.

“As soon as we’ve raised enough money we will build a memorial wall from the headstones to be placed there,” she says. “We will be working closely with the authorities and the local community on the project. Afterward we hope to digitize the information and save it in an archive.”

About 150 Jewish gravestones were uncovered in Brest recently, some intact and others damaged (Credit: PAULA SLIER)

The Together Plan is building a Jewish journey through Belarus, with the memorial wall featured along the route to help visitors discover the country’s rich Jewish heritage.

Earlier this year, while digging the foundation of an apartment building in Brest, construction workers discovered human remains believed to be from hundreds of Jews killed by the Nazis. Some of the skulls bore bullet holes, indicating that the deceased were executed.

The tragedy of the Holocaust was twice-enforced because so many people disappeared into mass pits without a name or outward sign of where they died. Since biblical times it has been customary for Jews to erect a tombstone at a gravesite to serve as a symbol of honor to the deceased. It also gives friends and relatives a place to visit.

But like so many Jewish families, there’s nowhere in Brest for mine to be remembered. And so I’m left wondering: did some of them die in this newly discovered mass grave? Will I find their names on a recovered tombstone in the memorial wall to be built?

I’ve always believed it’s not when a person’s body ceases to function that death occurs; it’s when he or she is forgotten. Helping to collect the tombstones is the least I can do to preserve the memory of both my family and a corner of the world where Jewish history and memory almost came to an end. But not forever – if we do something about it, people will return and they will find more than history. Miraculously, they will find the seeds of new Jewish life and so much more.

If each of us donated just a little to the memorial, I’m sure we could have it built in no time. To donate even a small amount, please click on the following link:

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