Vice.com runs a compelling article by Kate Samuelson about the city of Brest, Belarus and the extent to which Jewish tombstones were used in post-war construction there. We posted about this situation in June. Some 450 matzevot were recently discovered during construction of a supermarket — making some 1,500 discovered in the past six years, with new stones coming to light almost daily.
The cemetery was totally destroyed by the Nazis in 1941-42 and then in the decades after World War II the Soviet authorities converted the site into a stadium and playing field. Stones have been found all over the city — as these picture attest.
After the war, with Brest’s Jewish community devastated, the Communists set about getting rid of the remnants of Jewish culture in the town. In 1959 they dismantled the Jewish cemetery—one of the oldest and largest in Belarus—and turned it into a sports stadium. As the dismantling process got underway, Communist Party members, along with enterprising locals, recognized the high quality of the headstones and “recycled them.” As well as in the foundations of houses, these Jewish graves have since been discovered in the makeup of Brest’s road surfaces, pavements, and gardens.
In May, with diggers churning up the ground to build a new supermarket, more recycled headstones started popping up. Debra Brunner, co-director of the Together Plan, a UK-based charity supporting community empowerment in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, told me, “I can’t even begin to explain what it felt like to actually stand among the graves. Picture a huge mound of freshly dug mud with Jewish headstones coming out at all angles. It was a macabre sight.”
It would be impossible to restore the headstones to the cemetery they were stolen from, as the original site is still a sports complex and the particular location of each stone is unknown. At the moment, due to a lack of space and resources, many of the headstones are lying in a pile by the 19th century Brest-Litovsk Fortress, an important Soviet Second World War monument.
The article discusses what to do with these stones: how to preserve them, and — since the Jewish cemetery was destroyed — where? There was a plan to create a monument from them, but it is not clear what the status of that is.