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With Student Help, Belarus Rescues Its Shtetl Graves

Somewhere beneath the birch trees lies the Jewish cemetery of Senno. The graves have been there for 350 years, but the markers are so sunken into the earth that they look like random stones. Moss covers the Hebrew letters, and few people know about the site, which is hidden from the road by the foliage. The only visitors are mosquitoes.

The scene repeats itself across the timeless, pristine landscape of Belarus. At least 70 shtetl graveyards lie forgotten, overgrown by pasture land and forests. No one has recited Kaddish at these spots since the Nazi invasion of Belarus in 1941. German troops killed nine out of 10 Jews in the country, and shtetl cemeteries deteriorated because of the absence of returnees after the war. The subsequent ban on worship by the Soviets discouraged interments in these sacred burial grounds.

Author Judith Matloff narrates a video about her journey:

But since 2002, a movement has grown to remove the thickets, right fallen headstones and erect iron fences. The effort began with an orthodontist from Albany, N.Y., Michael Lozman, who was horrified to see the state of his grandfather’s grave in Sopotskin, a small town in Belarus’s northwest, not far from the Polish border. The dentist organized a team of students from Dartmouth to save the cemetery. Waves of American youths followed to work on nine other sites, and Lozman hopes to keep the operation going for years to come.

Now Belarusians are getting into the act. For the past few years, the Minsk chapter of Hillel — an outpost of the U.S.-based Jewish student campus group — has sent forth dozens of volunteers to fix up graveyards across Belarus. And in 2008, Jewish leaders in Gomel, the country’s second biggest city, organized local youths to move bones found under a Soviet-era stadium to a sanctified space. The students delicately lifted the remains by hand, and checked archives to match them to names. Members of this volunteer group have continued to maintain the new plots.

“We have to save whatever we can,” explained Yosef Zholudev, chairman of the Jewish community in Gomel. “We’re losing part of our heritage.”

All told, of some 90 abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Belarus, 17 have been restored, seven of them by Belarusians.

The Minsk Hillel plans to do about two more restorations each year, with repairs of the odd ruined synagogue or yeshiva thrown in. It’s painstaking work to lift the heavy stones and chop down vegetation. Yet preservationists feel under pressure to hurry. Belarus lacks a law on the restitution of community property, and by law, cemeteries can be reclaimed for other use 50 years after the last burial. In most cases involving abandoned Jewish cemeteries, the last burial was 69 years ago.

Whether restorers can complete their missions depends on money, which, like time, is in short supply. Due to the severity of disrepair, renewing a single graveyard can cost up to $20,000, a prohibitive sum for a country in which $255 per month is deemed a normal wage. Labor is cheap, but not the forging of strong enclosures around huge sites, or the heavy machinery needed to pull markers upright. Jews in Belarus, local community leaders point out, figure among the poorest in the world, and the country, Europe’s last communist state, lacks a thriving entrepreneurial class. The precarious Jewish community — variously estimated at 25,000 to 50,000, compared with some 800,000 before the Holocaust — depends largely on foreign donors, and most benefactors prioritize support for the elderly or for children over safeguarding the past.

“It’s all about money, and it’s a dilemma,” said Zholudev, a businessman who has dipped into his own pockets to revitalize Jewish culture here. “The living have me by my sleeve. But the dead tug at my heart.”

With limited resources, Belarusian volunteers often can do little more than remove weeds or paint perimeter walls, as they did last July in the Jewish cemetery in Volozhin, a historic center of East European Jewish learning. Headstones remained toppled in the mud for a lack of lifts to pull them up.

The sight of such desolated scenes can provoke strong emotions from those seeking to honor ancestors. Luba Borisov, 72, was aghast when she visited her grandmother’s grave at Rogachev cemetery, on her first visit back from Israel in 13 years. Borisov spent a good half-hour searching for the right spot among the tangle of chest-high nettles. A clearly inebriated man who was grooming his dog pointed her toward a group of markers lying prone and covered with vodka bottles.

To her relief, the family headstone stood upright. Borisov wiped furiously at the weathered letters, as though removing grime would make everything all right. She left, shaken.

Still, merely clipping the grass bestows some dignity upon the dead and serves as a reminder that Jews once populated these villages, said Maxim Yudin, director of the Belarus Hillel. In some cases, non-Jews join the effort and come to view the burial grounds with respect and even maintain them after the work crews leave.

“The local people were surprised at first that young students from Minsk would spend their summer break restoring a cemetery,” Yudin recalled about one job in Seliba. “They were intrigued, and then they came to help.”

Belarus’ government is led by President Alexander Lukaschenko, a self-admitted authoritarian who has made anti-Semitic comments in the past. The state does not provide assistance to fix cemeteries, although authorities have sometimes supported the erection of monuments at Holocaust massacre sites. Wartime slaughters frequently occurred at the edge of Jewish graveyards — the Nazis would march an entire shtetl population there and shoot them — so the memorials can remind people that there’s a burial ground nearby, even if goats are grazing on it.

“It’s painful to look at a new memorial next to an abandoned cemetery,” said Grigory Abramovich, the Reform rabbi of Minsk. “No one is saying it’s not important, but it’s a matter of practicality.”

Having said that, he estimates that only 40 massacre memorials have been put up in recent years. “At this pace, my children will not finish the job,” he added.

Even if all the remaining 70 neglected cemeteries could be protected, countless others are lost forever, because of the Soviet practice of building theaters or sports arenas on top of Jewish graves. Gomel marks one of the rare instances in which the human remains were exhumed and moved to a safe place.

Nevertheless, preservationists are undeterred.

“We need to protect these cemeteries in respect for the Jews that were buried there, to do for them what their families could not, and so that Jews in the future can make that vital connection with their past and their future,” Lozman said. “Their presence, their lives, their existence, cannot and should not be obliterated.”

Contact Judith Matloff at [email protected]

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