More than 1,200 Jewish Holocaust victims were laid to rest in Belarus on Wednesday after their remains were discovered in a mass grave under a construction site. Builders unearthed the Nazi-era mass grave while constructing a housing development earlier this year in an area that served as a Jewish ghetto from 1941 to 1942.
Soldiers exhumed the bodies of 1,214 people killed during the Nazi occupation. The remains were moved to a cemetery in the town of Brest. The town was part of Poland before World War II, and Belarus, which was occupied by the Nazis during the war, became part of the Soviet Union.
In a somber ceremony, 120 blue caskets embossed with the Star of David were buried side-by-side in a local cemetery. A rabbi led a funeral service attended by 300 people, including Israel's ambassador to Belarus. "The soul goes up to heaven through this process, so it was very important for the Jewish community that it was all done with Jewish custom," Ambassador Alon Shoham said.
Belarusian troops performed a gun salute and members of the community took turns covering the blue coffins with the earth.
When the bodies were first discovered, soldiers found skulls with bullet holes, suggesting the victims were killed execution style. They also unearthed personal items like leather shoes.
Local Jewish community leader Regina Simonenko criticized authorities for rushing to bury the remains instead of conducting DNA tests to establish their identities, the Associated Press reported.
"We were told that DNA tests are expensive and take a long time," Simonenko told The AP.
Simonenko, who attended the funeral, said she had "mixed feelings" about the discovery. She said she was shaken by horrible event, but that it served to remind new generations of what happened. "If we don't remember, then things like this can happen again."
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