Remains of More Than 1,200 Holocaust Victims Laid to Rest in Belarus After Mass Grave Discovered

May 23, 2019 Updated: May 23, 2019

More than 1,200 Holocaust victims were laid to rest in Belarus on May 22, after their remains were discovered earlier this year in a Nazi-era mass grave under a construction site.

Construction workers stumbled upon the remains of at least 1,214 people in January as they started work on luxury apartments in the southwestern city of Brest, which was home to a significant Jewish community before World War II.

mass grave holocaust nazi jewish belarus
Belarus’ servicemen excavate a mass grave for the prisoners of a Jewish ghetto set up by the Nazis during World War Two, that was uncovered at a construction site in the city of Brest, on Feb. 27, 2019. (Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images)

Soldiers were called in to exhume the bones of the victims, who were discovered at the site that served as a Jewish ghetto from 1941 to 1942. They discovered bullet holes in the victims’ skulls, as well as personal items such as wallets and worn out clothes and shoes.

The remains of the Holocaust victims were “brought from the killing field that was found at the beginning of the year at a construction site where a Jewish ghetto once lay,” according to the search and rescue volunteer organization ZAKA, which assisted Belarus’ military, Haaretz reported.

Rather than canceling the building permit where the remains were initially found, officials proposed to simply bury the discovered remains, much to the dismay of many Jewish leaders.

In a solemn ceremony outside the city, the Holocaust victims were buried side-by-side in 120 blue coffins covered with the Star of David, according to the Associated Press.

More than 300 city officials, including Jewish community leaders and diplomats, attended the burial and ceremony, which was led by a local Jewish rabbi.

Attendees, some of whom closed their eyes in prayer, took turns to toss earth onto the caskets before the pit was filled in.

“The soul goes up to heaven through this process, so it was very important for the Jewish community that it was all done with Jewish custom,” said Israel’s ambassador in Belarus, Alon Shoham.

Following the funeral, Regina Simonenko, a member of the Jewish community, told Reuters she had mixed feelings and had been shaken by remembering the events, but she said it was important the Holocaust victims had been laid to rest.

“If we don’t remember, then things like this can happen again,” she said.

About 28,000 were detained in the ghetto until it was destroyed in October 1942, when 17,000 residents were taken from the town and executed. The fate of the other victims remains unknown.

Many are unhappy about the officials’ decision to continue to build on the site where more remains could potentially lie.

Marcel Drimer, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland, told NPR, “I think it’s very late, but better late than never.”

“I am upset that the officials want to build on the sacred site,” he added.

Simonenko criticized officials for pushing forward with the construction of the luxury properties, instead of taking the time to run DNA tests and establish identities.

“We were told that DNA tests are expensive and take a long time,” she told the Associated Press.

The construction project is “an affront to the memories of the Jewish residents of the city who were shot and murdered in cold blood at that very site,” the World Jewish Congress said.

Since the public outcry, officials have promised to erect a monument in the area and have said the foundation of the apartment block doesn’t overlap with the burial site.

Brest Mayor Alexander Rogachuk said, “There will be nothing but the lawn on the burial site. We’re not even going to put up parking spaces or playgrounds there.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.