Students return to Jewish cemetery in Belarus

COLONIE -- A group of Siena College students made their second summer trip to restore a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis during World War II and neglected by generations of villagers in Rubezhevichi, Belarus.

"This project literally altered the course of my college career," said Leah Antil of Palmer, Mass., a senior psychology major who reprised a similar trip she made to Vselyub, Belarus, in 2006. Antil dropped her science major, learned Russian and studied abroad last year in St. Petersburg, Russia.

On this summer's trip, she and 15 other students spent five nights living with host families. Antil was able to converse in Russian.

The students, who raised their own money for the trip, cleared weeds and underbrush, restored 550 overturned gravestones and erected a new fence.

During their two-week trip, the students visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. They were also guests at an embassy luncheon hosted by the U.S. ambassador to Belarus.

They were taken to the area in Rubezhevichi where the village's Jewish residents had been rounded up by the Nazis six decades earlier, shot to death and tossed in a mass grave the villagers had been forced to dig themselves.

"This was a unique educational experience for the students and the interfaith connection was very important," said Dr. Michael Lozman, a Latham orthodontist and member of Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany. He has completed seven Jewish cemetery restorations in the former Soviet satellite. He began the work in 2002 after visiting his father's hometown of Sopotskin in Belarus and seeing the forlorn condition of its cemetery. Both his parents, who are dead, immigrated to the U.S. before World War II.

"The Siena students were tremendous goodwill ambassadors for the United States," Lozman said.

"Making this trip a second time allowed us to take this experience to the next level for our students. They achieved a much deeper understanding of the culture and community in Belarus," said social work professor Diana Strock-Lynskey. Plans are under way for a third trip, while Lozman applies for grants to increase the number of cemetery restorations and student involvement.

Antil made lasting friendships with children at a school in Vselyub during her 2006 trip and visited them again this summer. She's spearheading a drive to send hundreds of donated books and school supplies to the impoverished students later this month.

-- Paul Grondahl Charge out in hunting death A criminally negligent homicide charge against a man who accidentally killed a longtime friend and hunting partner in 2006 have been dismissed by a Columbia County judge.

Peter Deegan, 55, of Johnsville, was hunting with Raymond Scott, 35, of Cohoes on property Deegan owned in New Lebanon in November 2006. Deegan told investigators that he shot Scott with his hunting rifle once as Scott approached while trying to flush out deer.

Deegan was indicted on a charge of criminally negligent homicide, a felony, which was dismissed in late July for insufficient evidence, Judge Jonathan Nichols wrote in a 12-page decision.

"While the defendant's actions unquestionably resulted in the victim's death, it remains that 'criminal liability cannot be predicated upon every careless act merely because its carelessness results in another's death,' " Nichols wrote. Deegan had no reason to believe that Scott would be in the area.

Deegan's lawyer, Mike Jurena, praised the decision.

"Peter and his family are grateful for the judge's decision," Jurena said. "Peter has had to live with this horror every day, and will continue to do so, which is a prison in and of itself. However, at least with the nightmare of a criminal prosecution behind him, he can hopefully now try to get beyond this tragedy and move on with his life."

-- Jimmy Vielkind



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