(JTA) — The excavation of a mass grave of Holocaust victims in Lithuania was halted following an appeal by the Jewish community and the country’s chief rabbi.
On Wednesday, Martynas Siurkus, a municipal official in Siauliai, announced that the work would be halted “until the appropriate respect is guaranteed for the human remains of the people murdered and buried in the mass grave.”
Rabbi Chaim Burshtein had issued a statement on Tuesday calling for a halt to the removal of the bones in the mass grave discovered earlier in the week during road construction work in Siauliai, a city in northern Lithuania located 120 miles northwest of Vilnius, the nation’s capital.
“Please halt all disturbance and moving of these human remains,” Burshtein wrote in reference to the work, which he called “the humiliation of the excavation of the human remains of hundreds of people from the Holocaust-era mass-murder grave uncovered this week.”
Lithuanian Jewish Community chair Faina Kukliansky in a statement issued Thursday praised the municipal government for its cooperation with the Jewish community and for “responding quickly and helping solve the problem.”
Kukliansky said that the issue of potentially finding human remains was brought to the city’s attention before the road construction began.
“I can’t say what sort of historical research was performed before construction work was begun. If it had been performed and a new location was discovered accidentally, that would be possible to understand, to forgive and to correct,” she said in the statement. “Today we have all sorts of technology which we can use to determine where human remains are located without even disturbing the surface of the ground. It doesn’t matter whether those remains are of Jews or non-Jews.”
Audrone Sapaite, the archaeologist in charge of the investigation of the site, told the BNS news agency that the remains of 40 people were found there. In all, approximately 700 people shot dead by the Nazis were buried at the site. The nationalities of the victims are unknown.
Before World War II, Siauliai was home to some 6,600 Jews, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Many escaped to the Soviet Union, but the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators murdered hundreds of those who stayed in 1941 and in later mass killings. Some Jews from the city were conscripted to forced labor.