Belarus has come under periodic criticism for a mixed record on preserving its Jewish heritage sites.
But this summer the former Soviet republic has been placed under especially intense pressure because of its treatment of one of the oldest sites in the nation, which was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
Since mid-June, some European Jewish leaders and Western diplomats have put up fierce resistance to halt the ongoing construction over a historic Jewish cemetery in the town of Grodno.
Their efforts culminated last week, when E.U. representatives stationed in Belarus publicly protested the excavation of a 300-year-old cemetery, which is being dug up to expand a soccer stadium.
The dispute is highlighting differences among Belarusian officials, foreign Jewish leaders and Belarusian leaders over how this particular Jewish site should be treated.
Recently, a group of British and Israeli rabbis representing the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe traveled to Belarus to check on reports that work had begun to excavate the New Jewish cemetery — part of which had already been compromised some 50 years ago by a sports facility built on part of the former burial grounds.
Rabbi Hershel Gluck of the London-based group said his group saw numerous signs of vandalism and disrespect to the remains that would shock “any civilized human being.”
The committee members reported that human remains had been dug out of the ground as a result of the construction work.
The extensive digging attracted many locals — some in search of “Jewish gold,” others because of the horrifying effect of the construction.
Charter-97, a liberal opposition group in Belarus, recently reported of a 29-year-old Grodno citizen who found 14 human skulls at a dumping ground near his home adjacent to the former cemetery.
The man, who is not Jewish, reportedly took the remains home, hoping to give them a proper burial.
The dispute is taking place in a town with a Jewish community that is a fraction of its prewar size.
Located near Belarus’ border with Poland and Lithuania, Grodno had long been known as one of the prime centers of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry.
Beginning with the 18th century, Jews were a majority of the town’s population. But more than 20,000 Grodno Jews and as many Jews from the surrounding area were sent to death camps or killed on spot during the Holocaust. Many of the victims were buried in the New Cemetery. Following the near-total destruction of Grodno’s Jewry — only a few hundred Jews survived the Holocaust or returned to town after the war — the Soviet authorities effectively consigned the town’s Jewish past to oblivion.
Now that past has become a matter of international debate.
Belarus officials, who did not respond when contacted by JTA, have pledged to rebury the remains dislodged as a result of the excavation.
For his part, Gluck says building should not take place on a sacred site.
But local leaders — raised under the Communist regime and perhaps with an eye toward the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko — disagree.
The New Cemetery was closed in 1958, and most of its tombstones removed.
“Fifty years ago, no one made any noise because of this,” said Boris Kvyatkovsky, who is chairman of the Grodno Jewish religious community, which today numbers between 600 and 1,000 members.
“Those who wanted were allowed to remove the graves to other cemeteries, but most of the graves were not moved anywhere,” he said.
In 1963, a soccer stadium was built on approximately one-fifth of the grounds of the former cemetery.
This year, the authorities decided to enlarge the facility — home of the soccer club Neman — to comply with the regulations of the European soccer union.
“In the 50s and the 60s, they removed the tombstones but left the vast majorities of graves intact,” Gluck told JTA. “But now they are basically uncovering and destroying the graves.”
Gluck and his fellow rabbis insisted that no further digging work within the boundaries of the cemetery should be conducted, and that the excavated dirt should be returned to where it was before the construction began.
They also say further work on the site should be conducted after consultations with Jewish experts to ensure that the site is not further desecrated.
The governor of the Grodno Region insists that any agreement pertaining to the cemetery should state that the area has not been a Jewish cemetery for the last 45 years, and that any graves had long been removed.
A release issued by the preservation committee states otherwise: About half of this huge cemetery remains undisturbed.
Gluck says the ongoing work violates not only Jewish law, but also the human rights of those buried in the cemetery — as well as Belarus’ own legislation that allows the use of former burial plots for other purposes only after 25 years have expired since the last burial. In the case of the Grodno cemetery, the stadium was built within five years after the cemetery was closed in 1958.
Kvyatkovsky says the committee’s demands are very difficult to meet. He said a commission made up of local civil and Jewish officials has agreed to continue with the work in a more sensitive manner.
The stadium was slated to be completed by the end of this month.
“We have agreed that after the stadium is completed, we will rebury all the remains that were uncovered and put up a memorial on the site saying this was a Jewish cemetery,” Kvyatkovsky said.
“To us this is now a closed matter,” he said referring to the point of view of part of the Grodno Jewish community.
But Gluck says he and his fellow committee members view the agreement as insufficient.
“I still believe that certain things can be done to stop the desecration,” he says. “A plaque about the cemetery is very important but in no way it does serve as an excuse for the uprooting and the desecration of the cemetery.”
In the meantime, Gluck’s committee is appealing to Western diplomats and European soccer officials to have all the work on the cemetery halted until Belarusian authorities accept the agreement seeking to meet standards of Jewish law and preserve the sacred status of the burial ground.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.