Belarus Building Site Yields the Bones of 1,214 Holocaust Victims

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Tatyana Lakhay looks on at the building site for a new luxury apartment project in the center of Brest, Belarus, where the remains of 1,214 people were found, on April 10, 2019. Most are believed to be the remains of Jews killed by the Nazis. Activists, who say the city knew about the mass grave for slaughtered Jews, ask why a building permit was issued. (James Hill/The New York Times) -- NO SALES --

BREST, Belarus — Tatyana Lakhay, a fitness instructor here, returned to her apartment after an exercise class when she glanced out a window and came face to face with the horrors of the Holocaust.

“My God! What is going on? Something is obviously not right,” Lakhay, 26, recalled thinking as she watched a ghoulish spectacle unfold on the building site below.

Instead of the construction workers who for weeks had been preparing the foundations for a luxury apartment project, soldiers in masks and gloves were pulling human skeletons from the earth.

In the three months since then, the site has yielded the bones of 1,214 people. Most are believed to be the remains of Jews slaughtered by the Nazis after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Belarus was then part of the Soviet Union.

The discovery of such a large mass grave in the center of Brest, a city on Belarus’ border with Poland, has brought into focus a little-understood chapter of the Holocaust in one of the first Soviet cities seized by the Nazis.

It has also put pressure on local authorities to halt their plans for the housing development and explain why they approved the project in the first place.

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

Seeking to calm the furor, Mayor Alexander Rogachuk told journalists last month that the city, the scene of ferocious fighting in both world wars and earlier conflicts, had been built atop the unmarked graves of countless unknown war victims.

“Everyone here is a sinner in this respect,” he said. “We are all walking on bodies,” While it was known that the building site might contain “a few dozen” bodies, the mayor said, “nobody expected such a large number.”

Evgeny Rosenblat, a historian who has studied the murder of the city’s Jews during World War II, said it had long been known that the Nazis carried out massacres in the center of Brest. Still, he said, he was surprised by the large number of remains found on the building site.