In Brief

Hundreds of bodies found in Nazi-era mass grave in Belarus

Discovery made during construction work at site of WWII Jewish ghetto

The bodies of hundreds of Nazi mass murder victims have been unearthed from a mass grave on the site of a Second World War-era Jewish ghetto in Belarus.

The first remains were uncovered last month during construction work in the southwestern city of Brest, with dozens more discovered every day since. Dmitry Kaminsky, a soldier involved in the operation, told Agence France-Presse that the bones of 790 bodies have been exhumed so far, along with personal items.

Brest Mayor Alexander Rogachuk said the remains were believed to be those of Jews from a ghetto that was established in 1941 by Nazi German occupiers in the border city, then part of Poland.

During the War, the Nazis killed around three million civilians in Belarus, of whom 800,000 were Jewish, reports the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

On 15 October 1942, Nazi soldiers loaded 20,000 Jews from Brest onto railcars and transported them to Bronnaya Gora, about halfway between Brest and Minsk, where pits had been prepared, says the Smithsonian magazine. “The Jews of Brest were then shot and dumped into the pits, along with 30,000 Jews from other cities and regions,” according to the Washington DC-based magazine. 

When the Soviets liberated Brest in 1944, they found that only nine Jewish residents had survived the War.

Following last month’s discovery of the mass grave, the Brest mayor “is in contact with local and international Jewish groups about arranging burial for the bones at local Jewish cemeteries”, says JTA.

The news site adds that in recent years, Belarusian authorities have faced allegations of improper handling of Jewish and Holocaust historic sites. Officials and contractors provoked outrage by destroying three synagogues, and building on top of Jewish cemeteries, despite Jewish religious laws against disturbing human remains.

Vice reports that the disregard for Holocaust victims dates back to the postwar Soviet occupation, when the Communist regime sought to minimise, if not erase, Jewish culture and identity. During the 1950s and 1960s, scores of Jewish cemetaries were dismantled to build housing estates, sports stadiums and supermarkets.

“Jewish graves have since been discovered in the make-up of Brest’s road surfaces, pavements and gardens,” says the news website.

Around 1,500 headstones have been recovered from around the city since 2014, with many now in storage to be used in a prospective memorial.

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