Holocaust Survivor Denounces Plans to Build Luxury Apartments at 'Sacred' Site of Mass Grave for 1,000 Victims

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 February 27, 2019. SERGEI GAPON/AFP

An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor has spoken out against plans to complete construction on a luxury flat complex on the site of a World War II–era mass grave where the remains of some 1,000 victims were recently recovered.

Marcel Drimer, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, made the comments to NPR after the bones of hundreds of victims killed in the Nazi genocide were found on a construction site in the city of Brest, on Belarus's western frontier. The remains of the dead have been reburied in the eastern European nation, 70 years after the Holocaust.

"I am upset that the officials want to build on the sacred site," Drimer said. He also noted that he approved of the reburial of the remains, even if it had been a long time coming. "I think it's very late, but better late than never," he said.

The remains of 1,000 victims of the World War II genocide, which claimed the lives of 6 million Jews, were uncovered this winter as construction began on the high-end apartments. Belarus troops were deployed to take part in the excavation after the clear signs of a mass grave were found. Bullet holes were found in the skulls of the deceased, as well as shoes and clothing.

The bodies found were believed to have belonged to slain Jews. The mass grave was uncovered in an area where, during the Nazi occupation, the Jewish community had been forced to live behind barbed wire in the Brest Ghetto.

Despite the continuing reburial of the dead (120 bodies were buried in a ceremony outside the city on Wednesday), the construction of the new apartments appears to have been carried out in bad faith from the very beginning.

The Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities said in a March statement that before building began, eyewitnesses and historians had said a mass execution took place at the site. Prior to the building work, the union said, a more thorough examination should have taken place.

The World Jewish Congress has said in a statement that building permits should never have been issued in the first place and that in the aftermath it appears the reburial of the victims has been rushed, without proper tests carried out to ascertain the identities of those killed.

"The construction project underway in Brest 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," said Robert Singer, CEO and executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

This is not the first time local authorities in Brest have been accused of acting without consideration for its Jewish community. In the past, a prominent synagogue had a cinema built over it. Other synagogues have been converted into shops, offices and places for other functions. There have also been reports of Jewish gravestones in the area being reused as paving material for roads or in gardens.