Four neglected Jewish cemeteries in Belarus, abandoned since the Holocaust, have been cleaned up, their gravestones righted and shiny new fences erected around them, thanks to a handful of American college students and the orthodontist who led them. Between the summer of 2002 and this past June, three groups of students from Dartmouth College and one from the State University of New York-Binghamton repaired historic Jewish cemeteries in Belarussian cities including Sapockin, Irunda, Svir and Kamenka, working together with the non-Jewish villagers in those towns.
The trips were sponsored by their respective Hillels but were organized and led by Dr. Michael Lozman, an orthodontist from Latham, N.Y., because he saw a need and knew he could do something about it.
In the summer of 2001, Lozman and his cousins first visited Belarus on a pilgrimage to his father’s native village of Sapockin.
Population 2,500, Sapocki! n once had a thriving Jewish community, an historic wooden synagogue and two Jewish cemeteries. No Jews are left there today and the synagogue was burned down by the Nazis in 1941, but during his visit Lozman asked to see the 19th-century cemetery where his grandparents were buried.
A teacher from the local school escorted the Americans, taking them outside village limits and down a forested lane where the abandoned cemetery lay, hidden from sight.
“When we saw it, we were appalled,” Lozman says. “We hadn’t expected this barrenness and neglect, to see this piece of land where our grandparents were buried covered in 60 years of undergrowth, with cows grazing on it, and only a few headstones left. We were told the Nazis used them to build roads.”
Overwhelmed by emotion, Lozman and his relatives recited Kaddish in the empty field.
Many people would have left things there, as a sad memory to tell their own children. But Lozman was fired up: He went to see the vi! llage mayor and asked for permission to come back and erect a marker s o people would know this was a Jewish cemetery.
The mayor agreed.
“He thought I’d never come back,” Lozman guesses.
Back in Latham, Lozman bought a weed-whacker and special-ordered 100 12 in.-by-12 in. aluminum Stars of David from a local metal foundry.
“Two weeks later, armed with my weed whacker and my Jewish stars, I was back in Belarus knocking at the mayor’s door,” Lozman says. “Within 20 minutes I had two soldiers with shovels at my disposal.”
Lozman and his helpers rustled up some pipe, got in a van and set out for the cemetery to start laying fence. Soon three more men with shovels showed up, and an hour later a tractor arrived bearing sand and cement.
Lozman got to work with his weed whacker, and as he cleared away the brush and saw where mounds of earth indicated graves, he set a Jewish star atop each one.
By day’s end he’d placed 60 stars, righted 25 gravestones and erected a 15-foot entry gate.
“It was a tremendous feeling of accom! plishment,” he says. “But I told the mayor I wanted to come back and put up a fence, so the cemetery would be protected.”
Lozman made good on his promise. Through his nephew, a recent Dartmouth graduate, he contacted officials at the college who thought it would be a wonderful project for students.
“It allows students to explore the Holocaust in an experiential way and answers the question, ‘Is there a meaningful response we can make to the Holocaust a generation or two afterwards?’ ” says Dartmouth Hillel Rabbi Ed Boraz, who accompanied all three Dartmouth cemetery trips.
In June 2002, Lozman, Boraz and two helpers returned to Sapockin with 12 Dartmouth students. Half were Jewish, half weren’t.
That was part of the plan, Boraz says, pointing out that they spent a week in Poland visiting Auschwitz on the way to Belarus.
“The trip demonstrated to the non-Jews what we have lost. And by us responding to the Holocaust in this way, it shows that we can and mu! st respond to all genocide,” he says.
The group spent five days re pairing the cemetery, staying an hour away in Grodno and driving every day to Sapockin to mix cement, clear land, right headstones and put up fences. Villagers stopped by to help, and the local school hosted the Americans for a family homestay and farewell banquet.
Friendships sprang up between the young people, despite the language barrier.
“I felt it was important to integrate into the village,” Lozman says. “We are three generations removed from the Nazis. No Jews returned to these villages after the war, and the people there have zero contact with Jews. I wanted them to understand who we were and what we were doing.”
Beyond demonstrating the strength of Jewish memory and commitment, Lozman says the project showed the villagers that not all Americans are lazy and spoiled.
“We were ambassadors for our country. One man told me he couldn’t believe Americans would be there in his village, working. They had an image of Americans it was a pleasure to dispel,” he! says.
Dartmouth grad student Ethan Levine, 23, took part in the Sapockin trip, and then led the next two groups from Dartmouth in 2003 and 2004.
“I studied a lot about the Holocaust, and my family comes from the area,” he explains. “Many of the students have similar backgrounds, but there was also the Christian girl from Texas who wanted to learn more about Jews, and the boy with the Ukrainian mother and Palestinian father who was able to speak Russian and helped decipher the gravestones.”
One Saturday, Levine went to Shabbat services in Grodno’s Great Synagogue. There was barely a minyan, and the local worshipers were all elderly.
Levine says he would have found it terribly sad, if the locals hadn’t been so happy to see them.
“They told us we were out there doing work they could no longer do, and that made them proud,” he relates.
Dartmouth student Lydia Gensheimer, 19, went with the group to Indura in September 2003.
“It was five days of the h! ardest physical labor of my life, hauling aluminum fences and mixing c ement, but it was an incredible experience,” she says. “We didn’t know how we’d be received, and we were greeted with open arms. The teachers sent their best students to help us, and older people took time from their jobs to work with us.”
This past March, Levine and Lozman spent a week in Belarus scouting out cemeteries for restoration. They have a list of six more they’d like to work on, but as news spread of the American students with their strong arms and ready smiles, both through word of mouth and a spot on Belarussian state TV, villages from as far away as Lithuania and Ukraine have proposed their own Jewish cemeteries for future cleanup projects.
There’s only so much he can do, Lozman says. Hillel helps subsidize each student’s travel expenses, but the cemetery fences cost $8,000 apiece, and a fair amount has come from Lozman’s own pocket.
He has set up a foundation, the Restoration of Eastern European Jewish Cemeteries Project, to help defray future cost! s, and he would welcome an angel to keep the momentum going.
“In another generation or two, these cemeteries will be gone,” he says. “Four cemeteries is a small number, but if you think of the 6,000 to 8,000 graves they contain, graves we’ve helped preserve, you can see how meaningful it is.”
This article is part of a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.