Siena Students Restore Cemetery

HNP Communications Features

VSELYUB, Belarus – Siena students took part in an inter-faith trip to restore long-abandoned graves of a Belarus Jewish community massacred by Nazis during World War II.

“Somebody has to do it,” Michael Lozman, a 68-year-old New York orthodontist, organizer of the project and the only Jew in the group, told Global Jewish News.

“Thousands of Jews did not return home from Nazi camps and are not able to take care of their cemeteries anymore. But we want to restore what we can, so our children and grandchildren have a place to come back to, to connect with their past,” he said.

Some 160 gravestones with Hebrew writing had been set upright in the Belarusian village of Vselyub, and now stood in the sunlight, surrounded by a freshly painted aluminum fence featuring a big Jewish star above the entry gate.

“When we walked in to what was supposed to be a cemetery, we saw maybe five or six stones, but by the end of the day we uncovered more than a hundred. It was a pretty amazing feeling,” said Siena Senior Christopher Begley. He said the trip gave him the opportunity “to actually make a change.”

Siena students had to pay their own way and raise $10,000 to cover the cost of the fence.

Ralph Blasting, Siena College’s dean of liberal arts, and Diane Strock-Lynskey, a professor of social work at the college, volunteered to accompany the group to Belarus at their own expense.

“I had doubts whether this community would find it worthwhile for us to spend our time and money restoring an abandoned cemetery, or would they say, no, we want you to rebuild our school instead or fix something else?” Blasting recalls.

According to Blasting, villagers – both adults and children – came to the cemetery every day during their weeklong stay, helping to fix the stones, clean up the brush and collect the garbage.

“They saw the writings in Hebrew on the stones we uncovered as evidence of a very vibrant Jewish community that once lived here but one day was taken away and never came back,” he says. “Now, more than 60 years later, they could at least re-erect the tombstones and preserve the place that says there was once a Jewish community here.”

Blasting said the only two women in Vselyub who still remembered the Nazi invasion in 1941 shared their memories at the local school on the group’s first day in the village.

According to these eyewitnesses, there were 40 Jewish families in Vselyub when the war started. None survived.