Cemetery clean-up project helps teach students about Holocaust

new york | 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, Sapockin once had a thriving Jewish community, a 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 village mayor and asked for permission to come back and erect a marker so 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 1-by-1 foot 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 accomplishment,” 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.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].