GOMEL, Belarus - Workers rebuilding a sports stadium on the site of an 18th century Jewish cemetery in Belarus say they have no choice but to consign the bones to city dumps.More on anti-semitism in Belarus:
"It's impossible to pack an entire cemetery into sacks," said worker Mikhail Gubets, adding that he stopped counting the skulls when the number went over 100.
But critics say it's part of a pattern of callous indifference toward Belarus' Jewish heritage that was prevalent when the country was a Soviet republic and hasn't changed.
The stadium in Gomel, Belarus' second largest city and a center of Jewish life until World War II, is one of four that were built on top of Jewish cemeteries around the country.
The Gomel cemetery was destroyed when the stadium was built in 1961, but the remains lay largely undisturbed until this spring when reconstruction began and a bulldozer turned up the first bones.
A Jewish leader in Gomel, Vladimir Gershanok, says he asked the builders to put the bones into sacks for reburial at a cemetery that has a monument to Holocaust victims.
"We know we can't stop the construction but we're trying to minimize the destruction," Gershanok said.
But city authorities have ruled that the construction can go ahead because the bones are more than 50 years old.
Igor Poluyan, the city official responsible for building sports facilities, says he doesn't understand the problem. "If something was scattered there, we'll collect it and take it away," he said.
A history professor, Yevgeny Malikov, sees the cemetery as part of the city's heritage. He has filled three sacks with bones and pulled aside two of the unearthed marble gravestones. Other gravestones are piled near a trash bin or already carried away. Some of the bones have been carried off by stray dogs.
"The history of the city is being thrown into the dump together with the human remains," Malikov said.
Jews began settling in Gomel in the 16th century and by the end of the 19th century made up more than half of the population. In 1903, they made history by being the first to resist a pogrom, defending 26 synagogues and prayer houses.
Most of Gomel's 40,000 Jews managed to flee before the Nazis arrived. The 4,000 who remained were shot in November 1941. Only a few thousand Jews now live in the city of 500,000.
Oleg Korzhuyev, 38, who lives on Karl Marx Street at the edge of the site, said the workers aren't happy about digging up human bones, "but if they find a gold tooth then it's a real celebration."
Another city, Grodno, experienced a similar problem while reconstructing a stadium built on a Jewish cemetery. The excavated earth and bones were scattered into a ravine.
Jewish graves also have been disturbed in neighboring Ukraine.
"It's not just a Jewish issue, it's this general Soviet legacy," said Ukraine's chief rabbi. Yakov Blaikh. "They didn't respect people while they were alive and they don't respect them when they are dead."
This month, the Jewish community in the city of Vinnyntsa was able to stop construction of an apartment building on a pre-World War II Jewish cemetery.
Ukrainian authorities apologized, saying they did not realize the construction would affect the cemetery. Belarus, on the other hand, has been "one of the least responsive countries on all Jewish issues," according to Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli Simon Wiesenthal Center.
"The government is simply erasing Jewish history from the face of this land," said Yakov Basin, vice president of the Belarusian Jewish Council.
Before the war, about 1 million Jews lived in Belarus and 800,000 of them died in the Holocaust. Today they number 27,000 in the country of 10 million.
Belarus' president, Alexander Lukashenko, has shown little respect for Jewish culture. In a radio broadcast in October that provoked a sharp protest from the Israeli government, he suggested that when Jews were numerous in another town, Bobruisk, they turned it into "a pigsty."
"You know how Jews treat the place where they live. Look at Israel; I was there," he said.
Anti-Semitic acts involving Jewish cemetery desecrations, graffiti and attacks on community property increased across Belarus in 2002-03. Cemetery desecrations have taken place in Minsk, Borisov, Vitebsk, Bobruysk, and other cities. In Minsk, the Moscow and Severnoye Cemeteries were vandalized in July 2002. Two dozen tombstones were toppled or smashed in each location in a clearly coordinated effort. In Borisov, the July 2002 desecration of the Jewish cemetery was one of several acts against Jewish property in the city. In May 2003, vandals heavily damaged a memorial bench, presented by then-President Bill Clinton on his 1994 visit, at the Kuropaty gravesite in Minsk; the bench had been repaired and rededicated in January 2002 following a similar attack. Also in May 2003, Minsk’s Yama memorial and a Holocaust memorial in Timkovichi were both defaced. The Jewish Sunday school, the Jewish Charity Center and the office of the Jewish Youth Organization in Borisov have also been targets of recent attacks. No suspects have been identified in any of these cases.
The two most recent cases of cemetery desecration occurred in June 2003, in Grodno and Mogilev. In Grodno, a soccer stadium is being expanded over a 300-year-old Jewish cemetery; construction has destroyed and unearthed remains. The Jewish community has appealed to the Belarussian government and Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJE), as well as the world and European governing bodies for soccer (FIFA and UEFA) in an attempt to stop the construction. In another recent incident, the Jewish cemetery in Mogilev was opened by local authorities to non-Jewish burials, resulting in the destruction of Jewish graves, and crosses have been erected at the entrance to the cemetery.
Anti-Semitic graffiti in public places also escalated in 2002-03. In addition to the swastika – seen on walls, fences, doorways and underground passages throughout Belarus, often accompanied by the abbreviation for the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity party (RNE) – newer symbols and combinations have been introduced.
The Belarus branch of the RNE movement, led by former Lukashenko aide Andrei Valliulin, has increased its activities markedly since early 1999. It has branches in 11 cities, and holds nationalistic and anti-Semitic demonstrations unhindered by the authorities. In November 2002, lawmaker Suarhey Kastsyan made openly anti-Semitic remarks in regard to community attempts to save threatened properties, sparking criticism from the Jewish community.