Across the Former Soviet Union U.S. Catholic Students Clean Up a Jewish Cemetery in Belarus

They don’t see many Americans in the Belarusian village of Vselyub. Certainly not many with weed-whackers in their hands. So one hot afternoon earlier this month, village chairman Vasiliy Korol looked bewildered as he watched a group of American college students, helped by local schoolchildren, work to clean up the town’s Jewish cemetery, abandoned since the Nazis killed the entire local Jewish population 65 years ago.

Some 160 gravestones with Hebrew writing had been set upright, and now stood in the sunlight, surrounded by a freshly painted aluminum fence featuring a big Jewish star above the entry gate. Just a few days earlier, Korol said, this was an empty field where kids played soccer.

And if that wasn’t enough, Korol learned that none of these American visitors had relatives buried at the cemetery. They were students at a Catholic university in New York — the only Jew in the group was Michael Lozman, the 68-year-old New York orthodontist who organized the trip.

“Why are you doing this?” was all the puzzled Korol could ask.

Lozman has been asked that question many times since he started bringing groups of American students to Belarus five years ago to restore abandoned Jewish cemeteries.

“Somebody has to do it,” he answers. “Thousands of Jews did not return home from Nazi camps and are not able to take care of their cemeteries anymore. But we want to restore what we can, so our children and grandchildren have a place to come back to, to connect with their past,” he says.

In 2001, Lozman cleaned up the Jewish cemetery in the Belarusian town of Sapeckin, where his grandparents are buried. Since then, he has arranged the restoration of five other Jewish cemeteries in Belarus as part of his nonprofit, Restoration of Eastern European Jewish Cemeteries Project. The work has been carried out by groups of American college students, Jews and non-Jews together.

This year’s project, Lozman says, is particularly significant for its interfaith dimensions. It’s the first time he’s brought an entirely non-Jewish group to the former Soviet republic — 10 students and two professors from Siena College near Albany, N.Y.

Ralph Blasting, Siena College’s dean of liberal arts, supported the project but worried about finances. The students on Lozman’s previous trips were sponsored by Hillel. The Siena students had to pay their own way and raise $10,000 to cover the cost of the fence.

Most of the donations came from private individuals, Blasting says.

The students each paid $2,300 to come to Belarus.

Senior Christopher Begley says the trip gave him the opportunity “to actually make a change.”

“When we walked in to what was supposed to be a cemetery, we saw maybe five or six stones, but by the end of the day we uncovered more than a hundred. It was a pretty amazing feeling,” he says.

Blasting and Diane Strock-Lynskey, a professor of social work at the college, neither of whom are Jewish, volunteered to accompany the group to Belarus at their own expense.

“I had doubts whether this community would find it worthwhile for us to spend our time and money restoring an abandoned cemetery, or would they say, no, we want you to rebuild our school instead or fix something else?” Blasting recalls.

The students, for their part, feared they wouldn’t be welcomed in Belarus because of the country’s authoritarian political regime.

But the trip surpassed expectations.

Before the trip, a one-night homestay with local families was arranged for the American students. The village school also held a competition for the best essay on the Holocaust.

“So it’s not just the cemetery and not only interfaith relations that are important in this project, it’s the bonds of friendship we make with the Belarusian people,” Lozman says.

According to Blasting, villagers — both adults and children — came to the cemetery every day during their weeklong stay, helping to fix the stones, clean up the brush and collect the garbage alongside the Americans.

“They saw the writings in Hebrew on the stones we uncovered as evidence of a very vibrant Jewish community that once lived here but one day was taken away and never came back,” he says. “Now, more than 60 years later, they could at least re-erect the tombstones and preserve the place that says there was once a Jewish community here.”

Blasting said the only two women in Vselyub who still remembered the Nazi invasion in 1941 shared their memories at the local school on the group’s first day in the village.

According to these eyewitnesses, there were 40 Jewish families in Vselyub when the war started. None survived.

The huge cemetery that must have had several hundred tombstones before the war was used for burying Jews not only from Vselyub, but from neighboring villages as well, the Americans learned.

After the dedication ceremony, during which Lozman recited Kaddish at the restored cemetery, headmistress of the local school, Diana Tsverko, sounded uneasy when asked about her feelings.

“To be honest, I feel ashamed we hadn’t done this before,” she said. “It’s a great lesson for us in how to respect the dead, no matter what religion they were. I know that the Jewish community of Vselyub consisted mainly of shopkeepers and was respected by the villagers for its charity work. I now feel moved to build an archive and learn more about them.”

Lozman plans to continue his cemetery restorations for as long as the funding holds out. He already has three colleges interested in coming to Belarus next summer.

For more information, email restorejcem@aol.com.

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