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Jewish gravestones found in Belarus town to be made into memorial for destroyed Jewish cemetery

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The Brest-Litovsk Jewish Cemetery is a very significant site, but remains unmarked to this day; Brest was the birthplace of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin

By ILANIT CHERNICK

It was in 2014 when Debra Brunner and The Together Plan began the arduous task of memorializing the Brest-Litovsk Jewish cemetery in Belarus after 1,000 Jewish gravestones were discovered around the city.

Eight years ago, The Together Plan heard that Jewish gravestones from what was once the cemetery and today is a sports field, began surfacing across construction sites and an old prisoner of war camp from World War II.

Speaking to IsraelNewsStand, Brunner, who is the co-founder and CEO of the charity organization explained that it was while she was running The Together Plan’s youth summer program in 2014 that she became deeply aware Jewish gravestones “were surfacing across the [Brest] region.” 

During the trip, Brunner and The Together Plan spent a day in Brest making a short film and finding out more about the Jewish headstones.

She said that “gravestones appeared in construction sites, where old buildings were cleared and foundations have been dug to build new ones.”
“At the site of the Felix Warburg Colony, a housing complex that was constructed by the American Joint Distribution Committee in 1921 to house members of the Jewish community who had suffered in the First World War,” was used in World War II as a prisoner of war camp.

“First [it was used] by the Nazis to imprison the Soviets, and then by the Soviets to imprison the Nazis,” Brunner said. “During this time, the Soviet Commander made the German prisoners take headstones from the Jewish cemetery to pave the front of the camp as a way of addressing hygiene issues at the camp.” 

She added that recently, the Warburg Colony houses have become derelict, and “slowly construction companies have moved in to redevelop the land – many headstones were found at this site.”

Using the recovered headstones, The Together Plan is working to build a memorial to the lost Jewish cemetery where people will be able to learn about its history.

Volunteering at the Brest warehouse in July 2021. (Photo Credit: The Together Plan)

“This is only one part of the story,” Brunner said. “This memorial will honor a community that had lived and died and who never saw the atrocities that took place in 1941-44.”

“But,” she said, “what of the 26,000 [Jews] who were murdered by the Nazis? Many were forced into the Brest Ghetto, and from there they were transported to Bronnaya Gora where they were shot into pits – this is a story that also needs to be told,” especially when it’s believed only 19 people survived.

Brunner added that the project will be completed within the next 3 years.

Asked about the inspiration behind the project, she said that the Brest-Litovsk Jewish Cemetery is a very significant site, “yet it remains unmarked to this day.”
“Today it is a running track,” Brunner pointed out. “Yet people are still buried here. Brest was also the site of entry where the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 and the Einsatzgruppen killing squads marched in. It is the birthplace of Menachem Begin and the famed Soloveichik Rabbis were also from here.”

“Everything about the town and its history is of great significance and it’s this that was the inspiration,” she emphasized.

Delving deeper into the project’s roots, Brunner said that “when we first saw the headstones [in 2014], they were in a terrible state.”

“The Brest municipality had given some space under the arches of the Brest fortress where they could be stored but they were just dumped amongst rubbish when we first saw them,” she stressed. 

The team cataloging the Jewish gravestones. (Photo Credit: The Together Plan)

During that same visit to Brest, there was construction going on and a construction company came across many many headstones while digging the foundations for a supermarket that was about to be built.
“We visited the construction site and saw all the headstones coming to the surface,” Brunner explained. “It was a very strange and disturbing sight. We campaigned to raise money to have a fence installed to keep vandals away from the collected headstones and we funded the moving of the headstones from the construction site to the Brest Fortress to be stored with the others that had already been collected.” 

In 2015, the team returned to Brest, but this time they brought with them the son of a survivor. However, plans for the memorial were put on hold due to internal politics but in 2019, they found out that the headstones had all disappeared from the Brest Fortress. 

They set about trying to find out what happened to them and later discovered that the Brest authorities had moved them to a warehouse outside of Brest.

“Last summer, the son of the survivor who we had taken to Brest in 2015 said that he was interested in working with us to photograph every readable piece and then installing a memorial of some kind,” Brunner said. “For months we had discussions with the Brest authorities… and a new agreement [for the memorial project] was put in place.”

Brunner estimates that there are around 1,000 Jewish gravestones that have been recovered. “Some are broken [and] from what we can see we would say that possibly around a third are, more or less, intact,” she said. “We have just started to photograph every piece – this will take about a month. Then we will read and translate them and catalog them.”

She said that from what they have seen so far, some of the headstones date up to 1940 and they believe they will find that some date back to the 1850s.

Concluding, Brunner said that so many stories have not been told, “so many Jewish sites and buildings have never been marked. And this was a country that was ostensibly Jewish,” adding that as an organization, it is their mission and duty to revive and tell the stories of these Jewish communities.

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