Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Sports Arena Gained is a Jewish Cemetery Lost

An unusually somber crowd congregated outside the Neman Sports Stadium in Grodna this Sunday. To bystanders walking the normally rowdy streets surrounding the stadium, this seems like a strange setting for solemnity. But for those that witnessed the stadium’s construction in the 50s, the location could not have been any more suitable for a subdued event.
Similar to many Belarusian cities and towns, Grodno had a large and flourishing Jewish population before World War II. By the 14th century, the Jews of Grodno had already established a synagogue, built a cemetery, and owned tracts of real-estate in and around Grodno. The well-resourced community members kept busy with trade, handicrafts, and land-leasing.

Throughout the centuries, the stability of the existence of Grodno Jews vacillated. When times were good, the Jews prospered in their professions and even took in less fortunate Jewish refugees from neighboring municipalities who were victims of pogroms and expulsions. But when times were bad, the Jews of Grodno suffered their own banishments, land confiscation, and from any other restrictive decree.

After World War II, only a small percentage of the Jews and Jewish relics in Belarus survived. The Jewish community of Grodno, however tattered, was luckily left with an ancient synagogue and cemetery to remind them of their rich history.

But only one of these artifacts would remain, as soon after the war, Soviet authorities demolished the Jewish cemetery and built the “Red Flag Stadium,” later renamed “Neman,” over ancient tombstones and graves which were still being visited by living relatives. Many tombstones were used to pave roads, and the metal sign at the cemetery entranceway was used to build a monument of Lenin in the Grodno central square. Some local residents even used the stones from the cemetery to furnish their facilities.

In an effort to perpetuate the memory of the deceased who could no longer be visited, members of the community fought to construct some form of memorial. After years of negotiation with local authorities and collecting funds, the Jews of Grodna had successfully received permission to put up a commemorative plaque.

Jews from Grodno and all over Belarus gathered around the wall by the Neman stadium to mark the occasion. Sunday’s ceremony was attended by many officials, including the head of the Jewish National Cultural Association of Grodno and heads of Regional and Municipal Executive Committees of Belarus. Also present were leaders from the Chabad and Orthodox communities of Belarus, and Mr. Levin, the head of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Communities. Israeli Ambassador Ze’ev Ben Aryeh presented a medal to the wife of a man saved one Jew from being murdered during World War II.

The commemorative inscription reads in Belarusian and Russian: “In memory of the Jewish community, which lived within the land borders of their ancestors since the 14th century.”

See the what the Belarusian Embassy's website says "On the Issue of the Former Jewish Cemetery in the City of Grodno"

Above Photos: The new plaque on the wall of the Neman Stadium; A man stands in the one synagogue left in Grodno

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