Since 2001 Dr. Michael Lozman has worked to protect and preserve more than a dozen abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Belarus and Lithuania. (In Belarus: Kamenka, Vselub, Rubezhevichy, Svir, Sopotskin, Indura, Lunna, Shereshevo, Antopol, Kurenec; in Lithuania: Svencioneliai, Aukstadvaris, Rudiskes) In this personal essay, Dr. Lozman, a New York orthodontist, reflects on how he became interested, how he enlists and organizes U.S. college students and other volunteers, and how he arranges cooperation on the ground with local authorities, schools, and townspeople.
He subscribes to the belief that “every Jew is responsible for all other Jews,” he told JHE. “We all have a responsibility to those Jews murdered during the Nazi era to preserve and protect their family cemeteries. The Nazis and their collaborators planned to destroy everything Jewish, and to accomplish this they killed six million Jews, decimated their synagogues, and were responsible for the considerable destruction of their cemeteries. Those few cemeteries fortunate to be left intact are decaying because there are no Jews left to care for them. For the sake of those Jews killed, we owe it to them to restore their family cemeteries; to preserve their family names and resting place. Think of your own family cemetery, what it means to you and the care you put into it. We must do no less for our fellow Jews who were prevented from doing the same.”
Saving Jewish Cemeteries: We Owe It to the Murdered
Dr. Michael Lozman
February 7, 2016
In 2001, when I traveled to Sopotskin, the village in Belarus my father came from, I was confronted with a call to action. Visiting the Jewish cemetery there, I was appalled by its horrible condition. There were no fences or markings to designate it as a Jewish cemetery, few standing gravestones, garbage all over, and clear evidence of vandalism. I soon learned that the condition and fate of this cemetery was similar to that of Jewish cemeteries all over Eastern Europe.
I approached the mayor and told him I wanted to return and begin a restoration of the cemetery. It was obvious that he dismissed me as just another tourist making a declaration and then moving on.
But he was wrong. To his surprise I returned two weeks later, having made plans with a local guide, and started to install an entranceway made from iron pipes, topped off by a large Jewish star of David.
The mayor was so taken by my sincerity that he assigned me a crew of six maintenance men to help. We spent the next four days clearing the area and righting fallen gravestones. A metal fence was installed when we returned with students the following year.
Back in the United States, I established a not-for-profit foundation, the Restoration of Eastern Europe Jewish Cemeteries Project, Inc., and developed a restoration program that continues today.
Students – the Key
I realized that this would be a great learning experience for college students, and I can now proudly state that I have by now completed the restoration of 13 Jewish cemeteries with the participation of more than 150 students from four U.S. colleges: Dartmouth College, Binghamton University, Siena College, Union College. My 14th cemetery restoration is planned for this summer – with the participation of students from Xavier University.
Recruiting students and involving a college is not easy. It takes many hours of emails and phone contacts, followed by personal visits and meetings. There is always enthusiasm for participation, but the expense involved is often a problem.
I myself function totally as a volunteer, but the cost of the fence, air travel, and hotels is frequently too much for many schools. For colleges that can participate, I work with their administration to develop an itinerary and budget. I also meet with the students to show slides and discuss the deeper meanings of the work we are planning. I then travel with the students and supervise the entire restoration project.
My first cemetery restoration – in my father’s village — was a learning experience. Still, the itinerary developed remains almost the same today.
I first travel to a village to determine if the cemetery needs a fence or has an existing one that needs replacement. Installing a fence is our first requirement. Because we take students along we would like, if possible, to be in a village that has a school, is relatively near a hotel, and can assist with obtaining supplies for the restoration.
Initially, I meet with the mayor and local school principal to develop a program to involve local schoolchildren and to help in organizing home stays for our students. I have always found the local administration to be extremely supportive of the work we are doing.
I also seek out local iron foundries to discuss construction of the fence. I select the quality of steel to be used, provide the design, and develop a work and delivery schedule. The payment for the fence comes from the college involved, subsidized when necessary by my Foundation.
Back in the U.S., the students who will take part engage in Holocaust studies while still on campus. Several colleges have offered college credit for participating in this project, making it easier for the students to fund most of their expenses.
Our first stop is Poland, where the students tour Holocaust sites and memorials, including Auschwitz. The experience awakens awareness of how closely connected we are and how important our restoration work is.
The day following our visit to Auschwitz we travel to the village where we will be working. There we have waiting for us the iron fence, in panel segments three meters long, for our group to install.
The students dig the holes for the fences, mix concrete, install and paint the fences (at the three cemeteries in Lithuania they were aided by foundry workers). They also clear out years of overgrowth and right gravestones. In the space of eight to ten days they turn the Jewish cemeteries back into places of respect.
Their hard work, concern, and intensity to accomplish this task and to leave the cemetery in showpiece condition is difficult to describe unless witnessed. Moreover, we have often been thanked by the village mayors for what we have accomplished; at the same time they often apologize that we, as outsiders, had to travel such a distance to do what should have already been done.
For the students, many of them on their first trip to Europe, taking part can be a life-changing experience.
Typically, they do home stays of at least one or two nights, meet with the schoolchildren in the local school, engage in soccer games when possible (a great ice breaker), and invite the local school children to volunteer their help in the restoration work.
It is amazing how within a short time friendships are created in an atmosphere of mutual respect. It is not only apparent that we are interested in learning about the local culture, but local people see us as wanting to develop friendship relationships while at the same time doing a good deed far from home. The mutual impact is extraordinary, and there is sadness on both sides when we say goodbye.
The students who are Jewish come back with a sense of pride and an enhanced feeling of connection to their Jewish past and heritage. But many students of other faiths have joined us in these projects, and one can readily sense the sincerity and intensity of their involvement because what they have done has the shared quality of fixing the world.
Bringing students with me has created a ripple effect of awareness and concern about the importance of these restoration projects far greater than I could have achieved alone. Our work has received local, national, and international media attention, which further sends the message.
I am thankful for the many colleges that see this as a unique and amazing program for their students’ educational and personal growth. Funding remains the most difficult part of the project, as many schools cannot participate because of lack of funds. I continue to hope, however, that we will find the resources to move forward and expand our work.
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For further information, you may contact Dr. Lozman by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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