These headstones had once stood at the Brest-Litovsk Cemetery, now the site of the Lokomotiv sports stadium. What had happened to the cemetery? Why was it now a sports field? Why were headstones being discovered and what was going to happen to them? It was a compelling story and we wanted to understand more. We travelled for 10 hours that day to capture the story. Kate Samuelson, one of our Youth for Youth members, then studying for her masters in journalism, said she would write a story for us.
The 31st October 2014 was a Friday and The Together Plan was then a one-year-old charity. That morning Debra Brunner turned on her phone and received a barrage of emails from an array of newspapers, including the Daily Mail, asking to cover the story that Kate had helped bring to light. ‘VICE’ the online news agency had that day published the story. The headline was ‘The Town Making the Horrifying Discovery That It’s Built Out of Jewish Tombstones.’ That news story went viral reaching people in Israel, the USA, South America and beyond. This was news and it was travelling.
Brest, the birthplace of Menachem Begin and home to 26,000 Jews before World War II, was part of Poland in the interwar years. When Stalin and Hitler joined forces to seize Poland in the early days of the war, control of Brest fell under the Soviet Union, but Hitler broke the alliance and invaded the Soviet Union, on 22nd June 1941. The German Army attacked without warning. The defence of the Brest Fortress was the first major battle of Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. It was the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. The Axis powers (invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 miles) front, with 600,000 motor vehicles and over 600,000 horses for non-combat operations.
Four Einsatzgruppen Nazi killing squads entered the territory of the Soviet Union at the same time, with the sole purpose of killing Jews mostly through shootings into pits and experimentation of murder by gas in mobile gas vans. This was the backdrop to what was soon to come in Western Europe – the establishment of the German concentration camps in Poland designed to kill Jews, Roma, gay people and political prisoners on an industrial scale.
In Brest, the 26,000 strong Jewish community was annihilated and only a handful survived. Up to 1939, Jews had been practising their religion but when the Soviet Union seized control, then as allies with Nazi Germany, Jewish people slowly found themselves less able to practice under the Soviet policies. When Hitler broke the alliance with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, the assault on the Jewish community, both living and dead, ensued. The Einsatzgruppen rounded up the Jews, some were shot, some were put into a ghetto from whence they were transported to Bronnaya Gora to be shot. 50,000 Jews from Brest, Kobrin and Pinsk all perished in that place. The Brest-Litovsk Jewish cemetery, the burial place of Rabbi Jacob Meer Padva and Rabbi Josef-Dov Soloveichik, was also a target. To read more about the world of Brisk and its importance to the Jewish world, click here.