Cemetery projects mark a change of attitude in Belarus

dokshitsy, belarus | A smattering of the 7,500 residents of this village where Jews once lived were huddled under their umbrellas as the rain fell.

They peered over shoulders to catch a glimpse of Aaron Ginsburg, who traces his ancestors here, reciting a speech through tears.

“Dokshitsers made new lives in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and what would become Israel,” Ginsburg told the crowd as a camera from Belarusian state television focuses on him. “Few came back. Those who did found all they had loved gone. We are their children and grandchildren.”

Behind Ginsburg stood 170 gravestones etched with Hebrew inscriptions, the most recent reincarnation in a patchwork effort by Belarusian authorities and returning descendants to restore Jewish cemeteries across Belarus.

Ginsburg, a pharmacist from Massachusetts, played a vital role in the Dokshitsy project that was recently commemorated.

Few, if any, Jews remain in Dokshitsy. About 2,800 were rounded up and shot during World War II in a field across from where the cemetery stands. More than 800,000 Jews were slaughtered in Belarus during the Holocaust.

Now the Belarusian government — often referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe — appears to be taking a new direction to honor the victims.

In October 2007, President Alexander Lukashenko made anti-Semitic comments during a radio broadcast. But a month later, Lukashenko met with Lev Leviev, the diamond magnate and ardent financial supporter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the former Soviet Union.

Since the sit-down, local officials — with Jewish community leaders — have taken some initiative in restoring several Jewish cemeteries that were threatened by construction, including the one in Dokshitsy.

Ginsburg has spent the better part of a decade tracing his family back to Dokshitsy, a two-hour drive north of the capital city of Minsk.

The Jewish cemetery in Dokshitsy was demolished in 1965, a time of religious repression across the Soviet Union. Tombstones were removed or buried, and the park lay fallow for 40 years.

Upon unearthing the gravestones, town officials decided to preserve the cemetery and sought someone to help. In February 2006, Ginsburg received a letter from city officials saying the town wanted to right a wrong against the Jewish citizens of Dokshitsy.

Ginsburg created the nonprofit Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy and raised more than $28,000 to help fund the cemetery’s reconstruction.

What had been a field of gravestones buried or strewn about is now a fenced-off area with more than 100 gravestones standing upright and a marble monument with inscriptions in Hebrew and Belarusian.

A stone pathway leads from the road to the cemetery gate. All of it was built by the Dokshitsy government.

That spirit of assistance is a far cry from when Michael Lozman of Albany, N.Y., led his first group of American college students to Belarus for a cemetery restoration project in 2002. The group was detained by the KGB and questioned about their activities before being released.

Last month Lozman led his latest group of 20 students and professors from Siena College in Albany, N.Y., to a picturesque hillside on the outskirts of Rubyazhevich, a village about 45 minutes southwest of Minsk.

The group from the Franciscan Catholic school unearthed about 300 gravestones and cut through more than 50 years of overgrowth.

Lozman, an orthodontist with fingers rough and worn from seven years of reviving cemeteries across Belarus, shook his head as he looked across the stones, each of which had been marred by a number scrawled in white paint by an earlier cemetery restoration effort.

“There’s a difference between doing it and doing it well,” he said.