U.K. Charity Sets Sights on Saving Belarus Jewish Headstones

Some 1,500 headstones from a Jewish cemetery in Brest have turned up in various construction projects; one woman wants to save them for a memorial.

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A U.K. charity that usually focuses on community capacity building is lending an effort to preserve the heritage of the Jewish community in Brest, Belarus, where hundreds of headstones have been used in construction, The Daily Mail reported on Friday.

Debra Brunner, co-director of The Together Plan, has taken on the task of helping protect the headstones and turn them into a memorial, according to the Mail.

Some 1,500 headstones from Jewish cemeteries have been discovered all over Brest over the past six years. Brunner told the Mail about her recently "bizarre" visit to a supermarket where hundreds of the headstones were discovered in May.

"I’ve never seen anything like it. It was bizarre. They were everywhere," she said. "The builders were very kind, though, and concerned and wanted to know what they should do with them."

Brest, formerly known as Brest-Litovsk, was a major center of Lithuanian Jewry. Nearly 30,000 Jews lived in Brest in 1941, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

"Every Jew in Brest – bar 19 – was killed by the Nazis," Brenner said. ‘That’s 30,000 Jews killed. The whole community was annihilated."

After World War II, the "Soviets desecrated the whole cemetery and removed every single gravestone," she said, noting the graveyard dated back to 1832. Residents of the town apparently made use of the headstones for various purposes – as foundations, grindstones and in roads – without knowing what their origin was, according to the Mail.

When some suspicious residents finally brought the building material to the attention of a local priest, he recognized them as sacred objects and told them to save them, according to the report.

"More and more people recognized them – and soon there was a tidal wave of headstones," Brunner told The Mail Online.

She said The Together Plan is trying to garner support from the U.S Commission For Jewish Heritage Abroad to help raise funds for a memorial for the stones, which are currently stored in the arches of the Brest Fortress.

"‘If the Jews get their memorial it will empower them – out of death will come new life," added Brunner, who is also a director for Finchley Reform Synagogue in North London, according to the charity's website.