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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus' Jews Watch in Dismay

APGutman showing fragments of a skull at an excavation site in Mozyr, Belarus.
MOZYR, Belarus -- Belarussian Jews liken what happened here during the Holocaust to the mass suicides in the legendary fortress of Masada nearly 2,000 years ago.

For city authorities, that whole story is in doubt, and they're tearing up the cemetery where the victims are believed to be buried.

Yakov Gutman, head of the World Association of Belarussian Jews, said that about 40 Jews in Mozyr, including his grandfather, gathered in a house in 1941 and set it on fire, choosing to kill themselves rather than surrender to Nazi forces.

"These people repeated the deed of the Jews at Masada," where hundreds of Jews killed themselves rather than surrender to Roman forces in 74 A.D., Gutman said.

The controversy in Mozyr, 370 kilometers south of the capital, Minsk, echoes a dispute in another Belarussian city, Grodno, where bones from a Jewish cemetery were dumped in the dirt used to fill street potholes.

The Mozyr victims' remains were taken to a cemetery that was covered over by a sports ground in the 1960s. It is now being excavated for a gas pipeline.

Meanwhile, at another disused Jewish cemetery, the foundation for an elegant house is being dug.

Most city officials refuse to acknowledge that the Mozyr mass suicide even happened, saying no documents confirm it. In 2001 the Belarussian Culture Ministry ordered the site placed on a list of protected places, but Mozyr authorities have curtly rejected pleas to halt the digging. "We refuse to acknowledge that this deed ever took place," said Sergei Kostyan, the federal parliament deputy from Mozyr.

However, KGB archives that were opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union contain reports of the burning.

As for the pipeline, "the city authorities consider it advisable to continue construction," said Leonis Pisanik, a deputy mayor.

Kostyan put it more strongly, accusing Jews of sowing "ethnic discord." "Must we leave the city without gas because of Jews?" he said. "I am not an anti-Semite, but Belarussians suffered no less than the Jews."

Until the Nazis invaded, Mozyr had 7,000 Jews. Today it has 1,000, in a population of 112,000. There were 1 million Jews in what is now Belarus before the start of World War II, but just 30,000 today; estimates of the number of Jews killed in Belarus under the Nazis range as high as 800,000.

About 40 Mozyr Jews have signed a petition calling for stopping the pipeline construction, and Yury Dorn, head of the Judaic Religious Association, said the group is demanding a halt to construction at both cemetery sites. "So far, the situation resembles the sad experience of Grodno," Dorn said.

In Grodno, authorities agreed last month to stop digging on the site of a Jewish cemetery, where the renovation of a soccer stadium disturbed graves and left bones in piles of dirt on the street. Dorn acknowledged that construction has stopped, but said the authorities have not arranged a decent burial for the remains.

Even if an agreement is reached on the Mozyr cemeteries, it is unclear whether what has been dug up can ever be recovered.

"The remains are collected, put into bags and taken somewhere," said Vladimir Lis, a construction worker at the site of the cemetery where the mansion is being built.