When Dr. Michael Lozman asked to see the Jewish cemetery in Sopotskin in ‘001, he was directed to a broken-down field. Lozman visiting Belarus with cousins Alice and Milton Trost of Oradell and their son Larry had come to see the village where his father was born. Shocked by what he saw, he resolved to restore the burial site.
"There was no fence," he said, "and tombstones and markers had been knocked down."
The abandoned Jewish cemetery in Lunna, Belarus was restored by students from Dartmouth College under the direction of Dr. Michael Lozman.
Belarus, located just east of Poland, gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Before World War II, the region was home to a large Jewish population.
Lozman, a resident of Latham, N.Y., told The Jewish Standard that Jewish cemeteries throughout Eastern Europe lay abandoned and in a state of disrepair. Fixing up the cemetery in Sopotskin "was something that needed to be done," he said, so he sought out the local mayor and got permission to tackle the job.
"He thought it was just talk," said Lozman, "but I returned three weeks later with a weed whacker and with stars of David." With the help of workmen provided by the mayor, Lozman was able to groom the field and uncover ‘5 gravestones, which he marked with the stars.
But, said Lozman, the job was far from finished. The cemetery needed a fence, both to mark it as a burial site and to protect it against commercial use. "We needed to restore its identity," he said.
Lozman, accompanied by a small group of students from New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, returned to Belarus the next summer to continue the work. Together, they put up a fence and re-erected more than ‘0 gravestones, documenting the names on the stones.
Since that first summer, Lozman has brought five groups of students from Dartmouth and the State University of New York-Binghamton to Belarus to restore Jewish cemeteries and "serve as goodwill ambassadors" to the local population.
"Our students become ‘integrated’ with the village," said Lozman. "They stay at villagers’ homes, and children from the village come to the cemetery to help out." When the students leave for home, "they leave as warm, caring friends, with tearful goodbyes." The American group also makes a banquet for the local school, to which parents are invited, and speak about why they’re in Belarus and what they’re doing.
"For many of these people, these are the first Americans and the first Jews they are seeing," said Lozman, who pointed out that the interaction teaches local children about the place of Jews in the development of their village. At least one village school held an essay contest in which students were asked to write about the relationship between Belarus and the Holocaust. "They have to go back into their history and find the role of Jews," said Lozman.
American Jewish students are also brought face to face with the grim reality of the Jewish experience during World War II. Trip participants visit historic Jewish sites including Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the Warsaw ghetto.
"We have to protect Jewish cemeteries so that future generations will be able to trace their roots and make connections," said Lozman. In addition, the student trips provide "an overall educational, hands-on activity and a life-changing experience."
Writing about her experience, one Binghamton student who participated in the Svir Cemetery Restoration Project called it "a chance to restore dignity to our deceased ancestors in a bold act of respect and remembrance." Another student wrote that "this [was] the most significant experience of my life."
Today, Lozman is leaving for Belarus with a group of students from Siena College, a Christian institution. They will work for 1′ days in the village of Vselyub, putting up fences, raising gravestones, cutting weeds, removing trash, and doing whatever else they can to restore the local Jewish cemetery and educate the residents of the community.
"I decided to extend the activity to a Christian school to bring two faiths closer in an activity that both would find meaningful," said Lozman. He pitched the idea to the Catholic diocese in Albany, which embraced it enthusiastically. The school designed Holocaust-related courses for students planning to participate in the trip and will award credit for the summer activity.
So far, Lozman has tackled six cemeteries, calling it "a good track record for an organization." But, he said, "there is much more to do." During the winter, he visited a number of villages, identifying cemeteries and marking off their perimeters to know what size fences to build. In each village, he says, he met with the town administrator.
In one village, he was shown a list of 450 Jews who had been deported and killed in 1941.
Visiting the massacre site, a nearby forest, was "an extremely emotional experience," he said. "I walked the same pathway into the forest as the Jews who were killed," he reported. "It was harder walking out, because they didn’t."
Lozman has put a small wooden fence around the area and said the town wants to erect two marble memorials engraved with the names of the Jews who perished there. He has agreed to come back and do that.
Lozman has also created a nonprofit foundation to help in the task of restoring Jewish cemeteries in Europe. "We have an opportunity to correct a wrong," he said. "We need to grasp it."
For more information, write to the Eastern European Jewish Cemeteries Project, Inc., 17 Johnson Road, PO Box 8’1, Latham, NY 1’110, restorejcem.com.