14 April 2008

Belarus: Gomel graves desecrated

If your family has roots in Gomel, Belarus, read this AP story about the desecration of an 18th century Jewish cemetery via the rebuilding of a sports stadium.

Before World War II, Belarus was home to some 1 million Jews; 800,000 died in the Holocaust. Today there are about 27,000 Jews in the country's 10 million citizens.

Jews began to settle in Gomel in the 16th century. By the late 19th century, they were more than half of the population. In 1903, according to the story, the Gomel Jews made history by being the first to resist a pogrom and defended 26 synagogues and prayer houses. Most of the city's 40,000 Jewish residents managed to get out before the Nazis arrived; 4,000 who stayed were murdered in November 1941. Today's population is 500,000 with only a few thousand Jews among them.

"It's impossible to pack an entire cemetery into sacks," said worker Mikhail Gubets, adding that he stopped counting the skulls when the number went over 100.

But critics say it's part of a pattern of callous indifference toward Belarus's Jewish heritage that was prevalent when the country was a Soviet republic and hasn't changed.

The stadium in Gomel, Belarus's second largest city and a center of Jewish life until World War II, is one of four that were built on top of Jewish cemeteries around the country.

The Gomel cemetery was destroyed when the stadium was built in 1961, but the remains lay largely undisturbed until this spring when reconstruction began and a bulldozer turned up the first bones.

A Jewish leader in Gomel, Vladimir Gershanok, says he asked the builders to put the bones into sacks for reburial at a cemetery that has a monument to Holocaust victims.

"We know we can't stop the construction but we're trying to minimize the destruction," Gershanok said.

But city authorities have ruled that the construction can go ahead because the bones are more than 50 years old.

A city official doesn't understand the problem. A history professor views the cemetery as part of the city's heritage and has filled three sacks with bones and saved two of the unearthed marble gravestones, while others are piled near a trash bin or carried away.

It's not only Gomel; Grodno had a similar problem; and Ukrainian Jewish graves have also been desecrated. Vinnitsa was able to stop construction of an apartment building on a cemetery earlier this month and the Ukrainian authorities apologized, but Belarus, according to Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, has been one of the least responsive on Jewish issues.

There's more in the story.

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