Brest-Litovsk Jewish Cemetery
Every salvaged headstone has now been read
Brest has historically had many names: Brzesc nad Bugiem (Brisk on the Bug), Brisk, Brisk-de-Lita (Brisk of Lithuania), today Brest, Belarus. It was the birthplace of Menachem Begin (16th August 1913), and home to some of the most prominent figures in the Rabbinical world including Shelomoh Luria (Maharshal) in the sixteenth century; Yo’el Sirkes (Baḥ) in the seventeenth century; Avraham Katzenellenbogen in the eighteenth century; and they were followed in the nineteenth century by a veritable galaxy of outstanding scholars, including Aryeh Leib Katzenellenbogen, Ya‘akov Me’ir Padua (1840–1856), Yehoshu‘a Leib Diskin (1874–1877), Yosef Ber Soloveichik (1878–1892), Ḥayim Soloveichik (1892–1918), and Yitsḥak Ze’ev Soloveichik (1918–1941). [See Soloveichik Family.]
Brest is widely known for its significant history as being the place where the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (also known as the Treaty of Brest in Russia) was signed on March 3, 1918, between the new Bolshevik government of Russia and the Central Powers (German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire). It was the peace treaty that ended Russia’s participation in World War I.
Before 1939 Brest had been a part of Poland. When Hitler and Stalin divided Poland in 1939, the east of Poland came under Soviet control. In 1941, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin, launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. With the Wehrmacht German army came the Einsatzgruppen, the paramilitary death squads whose mission it was to murder Jews, primarily by shooting. The first assault was the defence of the Brest Fortress. The ensuing siege and devastating battle gave rise to a brave fight, but the Nazis were the victors and they took the town. The Einsatzgruppen rounded up the Jews and moved them into a ghetto. Most of the Jews were then transported by train to, Bronnaya Gora, a carefully selected remote site where they were shot. 50,000 Jews from Brest, Pinsk and Kobrin and the surrounding villages were killed at this site.
Before the Second World War, Brest-Litovsk had been home to 26,000 Jews. In 1941, these innocent people found themselves on the front line of the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. The German invasion of the western Soviet Union covered a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 mi) front, with 600,000 motor vehicles and over 600,000 horses for non-combat operations. Some Jews had taken flight before the onset of war, most of those who remained, were killed. (Watch our exclusive interview with Sam Webb who fled Brest as a 13 year old boy. Sam, now in his 90’s, lives in Australia and shares his memories of that time).
The Jewish community of Brest-Litovsk had homes, schools, synagogues, shops, businesses, yeshivas and a large cemetery. Life was hard, antisemitism was rife, but the community and Jewish life, lifecycle and traditions endured, but at the hands of the Germans, everything and everyone was destroyed, even the cemetery. To read more about the destruction of the cemetery, click here.
In the last 20 years, headstones from the Brest-Litovsk cemetery have been discovered – in gardens, at construction sites, by the river. As the collection has grown, so they had to be relocated several times, with hopes that something could be done with them. Since 2014, The Together Plan has been working to find support so that these headstones can be photographed, read and incorporated into a memorial. In 2020. Stephen Grynberg, the son of one of the 19 survivors from the 20,000 plus strong community pledged his support to bring this memorial to life.
As a result, last summer, The Together Plan team in Belarus signed an exclusive agreement with the Brest Municipality, to forge ahead with developments and 1249 salvaged pieces were photographed. These photographs have now been read by specialists in Poland and now this database of images and translated inscriptions can be viewed. Click here to see the library of images.
The immensely significant history of the Jews of Brest cannot be overstated – and we are committed to do all we can not only to ensure that it is not forgotten, but we hope, in time, to install markers in Brest to signpost the important Jewish sites and to show where today’s living community can be found, visited and supported.
Next steps for the project:
A design for a memorial in Brest is now in development. By 2024, we aim to have a memorial designed, and built at the site of the cemetery. This will be a fitting memorial to the lost community who were so brutally slaughtered and a site that will become a very important landmark on the Belarus Jewish Cultural Heritage Route that The Together Plan is creating with Belarusian citizens.
To support this project, if your family came from Brest or to find out more, please contact us.