Human remains from an old Jewish burial ground in eastern Poland have been dug up and dumped in an empty lot to make way for the construction of an electrical substation and a parking lot, authorities have revealed.
Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich described the excavation as the worst desecration of a Jewish cemetery he has seen during the 17 years he has been a rabbi in the country.
Jewish religious law holds that bodies should be disturbed once they are buried only under limited circumstances, such as saving lives.
A day after visiting the construction site in Siemiatycze, a small town that was about 60 per cent Jewish before the Second World War, Schudrich showed The Associated Press photos of large mounds of earth with human bones, including a large part of a human skull.
“This is a full-out scandal,” the rabbi, who originally is from New York, said.
“Sometimes people can do something by mistake and may not realise they are seeing bones, but skulls are hard to miss.”
An official with the local authorities, Bogumila Kazimierczak, insisted that the building work did not take place on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery, but on already developed land that is managed by an automobile association.
The mayor’s office had no information indicating construction there should be prohibited, Kazimierczak said.
Schudrich disputes that, saying the land in question was part of the old cemetery. He said it and another section of the cemetery were not returned to the Jewish community after the fall of communism in Poland.
The rabbi said he warned local authorities that it was holy ground and asked them to inform him if there was ever a request to build there.
“I went there three or four years ago and I told them that if you put a shovel in the ground, you are going to find bones,” Schudrich said.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation.
Only 70 of the 7,000 Jews estimated to have been living in Siemiatycze on the eve of the Second World War survived the Holocaust, and none are believed to living there now, Schudrich said.
“This is a very egregious violation of the final resting place of the Jews of this town,” said Gideon Taylor, co-chair of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.
The country has more than 1,000 Jewish cemeteries but, in most cases, no Jewish communities left to look after them, Taylor said.
“It’s essential that local authorities protect them because there is no local Jewish voice to protect the memory of those who died,” he added.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies