Ukraine Jews want graves building halted

July 23, 2008 5:27:34 PM PDT
A Jewish group asked the Ukrainian government on Wednesday to stop construction on the site of a grave containing the remains of an estimated 26,000 victims of the Holocaust.The Jewish community in Odessa says a developer has begun building what it believes will be a shopping mall on the site of a burial ground. When construction workers began digging they found bones, skulls and children's toys, said Avrohom Wolf, the chief rabbi for Odessa and southern Ukraine. He said the builder has taken away all the remains it dug out and said he has no clue where to search for them. Wolf would not name the company, in hope of finding a solution.

The victims were executed in the fall of 1941, shortly after German troops invaded the Soviet Union, according to Wolf. The grave - a plot of barren land not far from the center of the city - was marked by several Jewish monuments, but not officially labeled a cemetery.

"It is difficult to describe how horrible it looked - hundreds and hundreds of people, hands, legs, skulls," Wold told the Associated Press.

Wolf and other Jewish leaders sent a letter to Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, asking her to intervene. Wolf said local officials had tried to help but failed.

"Construction on the site where there are bones wherever you dig cannot be called anything but blasphemy and an insult to the memory of the dead," the letter said.

The government declined immediate comment.

Historians say some 1.4 million of Soviet Ukraine's 2.4 million Jews were executed, starved to death or died of disease during the war. Their remains are strewn around the country in common graves, many of them ignored and unmarked.

Jewish cemeteries and burial grounds get little respect in the former Soviet Union. Graves have been disturbed by construction works elsewhere in Ukraine and in neighboring Belarus.

Earlier this spring another developer began construction of an apartment building on a pre-World War II Jewish cemetery in the city of Vinnytsia. The Jewish community had to fight to stop the project.