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Burying Jewish Dead in Belarus a Problem After Cemetery Dispute

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The Jewish cemetery in the Belarusian city of Mogilev has been closed — but Jews are still being buried there.

The issue involving the cemetery began last year, after local authorities decided to open the burial grounds to non-Jews.

“Each day, new burial places are made over old Jewish bones,” said Naum Ioffe, chairman of the Mogilev Jewish community. “No one can stop this barbarity but us.”

Orthodox Christian crosses recently appeared on the cemetery gate, and graves marked with crosses — surrounded by Jewish tombstones — now can be seen throughout the cemetery.

Authorities deny any wrongdoing, saying Belarus’ legislation allows graves that have been abandoned for more than 40 years to be used for new burials.

Jewish activists say this is not true and that the law allows only trees to be planted on abandoned plots of cemetery land.

Last month, Ioffe wrote a letter to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, urging him to help restore order at the cemetery, which was established in the mid-18th century.

In response, the local mayor ordered the town’s only Jewish cemetery temporarily closed to new burials.

That hasn’t solved the problem.

Recently “an old man died and we couldn’t bury him properly,” Ioffe told JTA last week in a telephone interview from Belarus. “We buried him anyway, despite the mayor’s ban, and will continue using the cemetery for what it is intended — whatever it takes.”

This isn’t the first time the cemetery has been opened to non-Jews.

Twenty-five years ago, the city’s Soviet authorities did just that after the town’s main Christian cemetery outgrew its limits.

Ioffe says some Jews, his father among them, tried to protest, but were told that “all Soviet people are equal” and therefore can be laid to rest in any cemetery.

After years of this “mixed use,” many of the older graves were destroyed, bones dug up and stones discarded to make room for new burials.

Jewish activists say more than 1,000 graves were damaged or destroyed in that way.

With the help of a small group of U.S. donors, Ioffe said, he and members of his community cleared up much of the old part of the cemetery and last year reburied “four bags of bones that we found scattered all over” the cemetery.

The inscription on the tombstone erected over the reburied remains says: “Here lie the remains of the Mogilev Jews, once buried in this cemetery, whose rest was barbarically disturbed.”

The overseas donors also paid to build a fence around the cemetery and to put up a stone over the reburied remains. But Ioffe said the aid was discontinued after last year’s decision by authorities to turn the burial grounds into a public cemetery.

“This is a major disgrace to the deceased,” Ioffe said. “Those who were laid to rest at a Jewish cemetery should remain in a Jewish cemetery.”

Ioffe says he has nothing against non-Jewish burials in a specially assigned section of the cemetery, especially since the relatives of some leading politicians are being buried in the cemetery.

The most the Jewish community can hope for, Ioffe said, is to have the authorities ban new burials above older ones.

In the meantime, Jewish activists are photographing all remaining Jewish graves to compile a complete registry.

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