Published on Thursday, May 26, 2005

Hillel Belarus project to restore Jewish cemetery

By Jennifer Garfinkel, The Dartmouth Staff

Courtesy of Project Presentation

Dartmouth students discover a buried Jewish gravestone at a cemetery during the 2004 Project Preservation trip to Kamenka, Belarus.

This June, a group of Dartmouth students will travel to Europe for Dartmouth Hillel's fourth annual Project Preservation, a cross cultural service trip to Belarus. The students will restore a Jewish cemetery that was abandoned during the Holocaust, and travel to Poland to visit the sites of the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp.

Each year, Project Preservation has focused their efforts on a different village in Belarus. Trip participants will spend five days restoring a cemetery in the small Belarusian village of Lunna, erecting an iron fence around the parameters, raising fallen headstones and weeding the land.

The Jewish cemeteries in Belarus were desecrated by Nazis during the Holocaust and after World War II, and fell into disrepair because there were no longer Jews to maintain them.

Several aspects of this year's Project Preservation are different than in the past. A photographer and videographer will travel with the group, and each headstone will be documented and archived on the Project Preservation website.

Lydia Gensheimer '06, who participated in the 2003 trip, is spearheading this year's trip as the student project leader. Madeline Hwang '05 will serve as the trip's historiography officer, Dan Ellman '06 is arranging travel plans and Bennat Berger '06 has lead the group's spring meetings. Ethan Levine '03, who led the trip in 2003, will be attending the trip as advisor for the second time. Rabbi Edward Boraz, Dr. Michael Lozman and Reverend Carla Bailey of the United Church of Christ will be traveling with the group as well.

The students accepted to the trip, half of whom are Jewish, attend weekly meetings throughout this term to learn about the Holocaust, in order to understand the historical basis for the trip. The group has read five books, and has received lectures from Dartmouth history professor Susannah Heschel and Kenneth Yalowitz, who is the current director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and the former U.S. ambassador to Belarus.

The trip has grown from about 12 students at its inception to 19 students. This year, about 40 students applied for Project Preservation. Only about one-third of the applicants were Jewish.

Project Preservation began when Dr. Michael Lozman, an orthodontist from Albany, visited Belarus to explore his roots. Appalled by the disrepair of the country, Lozman returned to the United States and contacted his nephew who worked at the Tucker Foundation. The Tucker Foundation and Dartmouth Hillel teamed up to sponsor the first service trip to Belarus. Hillel now runs the trip on its own, with financial support from the Dicey Center.

One goal of the trip is to "preserve the past for the future," Anthony Shears '06 said. Shears will attend the June trip and feels an obligation, as a Jew, to preserve Jewish history.

"I think it is important for people to go because it adds concrete, physical historical perspective. They say there is no thing like the real thing," he said.

This year, the group had the pleasure of finding a Holocaust survivor, now living in Chicago, originally from the town they will be visiting during the trip. Recently, Gensheimer, Hwang, and Rabbi Boraz flew to Chicago to interview Alan Welbel. Welbel spoke about chasing squirrels and sleeping under haystacks, depicting for the Dartmouth visitors what life in Lunna was like before the Holocaust.

Two nights of the trip will be spent staying with Belarusian host families, an experience that Lydia Gensheimer '06, who traveled to Indura, Belarus on the 2003 trip, described as "stepping into another world." She recalled the simplicity of Belarusian life and the eagerness of the Belarusians to engage with Americans, despite a language barrier.

"The Belarusian people we met could not have been warmer," she said. "They welcome us with open arms and open hearts."

Rabbi Boraz finds significance in the diversity of the trip.

"Because the students who go on this trip are from diverse backgrounds, there is a greater sense of appreciation and sensitivity to the ideal of a shared humanity," Rabbi Boraz said. "Your ancestor becomes my ancestor, and my ancestor becomes your ancestor."