NEW YORK — It started as a personal mission in 2001 to restore the Jewish cemetery in his father’s village in Belarus, called Sopotskin.
“The place was a travesty,” says Michael Lozman, recalling his first visit to the cemetery, not far from the Polish border. “There was something inherently wrong with sacred ground being turned into a cow pasture and dumping ground.”
The cemetery had been abandoned since 1941, when Germany invaded and murdered most of the country’s 375,000 Jews. The Nazis used many of Sopotskin’s Jewish tombstones to build roads, and the cemetery itself became a holding pen for Jews en route to extermination camps in Poland.
Out of respect for his relatives buried there, Lozman knew he had to reverse decades of decay and neglect at the site, which threatened to complete the Nazis’ goal of eradicating a Jewish presence in Europe. Almost all of the estimated 90 Jewish graveyards in Belarus face similar neglect — if they have not already been dismantled and built over, that is.
Lozman’s vision was to return to Belarus and engage the Sopotskin community in restoring the cemetery and its estimated 3,000 graves. As a full-time orthodontist in practice with his daughter, Lozman knows a thing or two about long-term planning and applying correctives.
The Latham, New York, resident realized he couldn’t upright dozens of tombstones and rehabilitate the site by himself, much less install a 2,000-foot-long perimeter fence and appropriate grave markers. He knew the project would require several trips to Belarus, in addition to cooperation from the people of Sopotskin and a lot of helping hands.
Back in the US, Lozman discovered that college students were uniquely suited to help enact his mission. Not only could many students fit a three-week jaunt to Belarus into their summer schedules, but students could also become — Lozman hoped — the vanguard of a larger movement to rehabilitate all of Eastern Europe’s disappearing Jewish cemeteries.
Soon after returning from his initial, “shocking” visit to Belarus, Lozman approached administrators at Dartmouth College and convinced them to offer the project to students during several consecutive summers. Students would study Jewish history in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust for a semester, culminating in a three-week stay in Belarus for the restoration, as well as tours of Jewish sites in Poland.
From the beginning, Lozman advocated for students of all religious backgrounds to participate, and for the establishment of personal, ongoing relationships with community leaders at each site. The now standard visit includes restoration participation from schoolchildren and their families, as well as conversations with elderly Belarusians who remember former Jewish communities.
“It’s essential we integrate into the village,” Lozman said. “We are three generations removed from the Nazis, and almost none of the Jews in these towns returned. I want the people in these villages that used to have thriving Jewish communities to understand who we are and what we are doing.”
Since the first series of trips to restore his family’s cemetery, Lozman has led 11 groups of college students to rehabilitate other Belarusian cemeteries. His dream is to surround each threatened Jewish cemetery in Eastern Europe with a simple iron fence he designed featuring the Star of David, as well as to archive the names of Jews whose families never returned from the Holocaust to tend their graves. Each project is funded by the students themselves, who are tasked with raising up to $15,000 for the perimeter fence.
“By doing this work, we are trying to undo some of the atrocities which took place,” Lozman said. “We are coming from another country to give people back their names and history.”
Almost 200 college students have worked on what Lozman named the Restoration of Eastern European Jewish Cemeteries Project, including Christian students from Siena College and interfaith groups from several universities. Students report deeply gratifying experiences learning about Jewish history and rehabilitating the sites in partnership with interested townspeople.
“We are preserving the past for the future,” said Dartmouth College alumnus Anthony Shears, who worked with Lozman on the Lunna cemetery rehabilitation in Belarus. “I think it is important for people to go because it adds concrete, physical historical perspective.”
Most of Lozman’s groups are about one-third Jewish, and all participants learn about halacha, or Jewish law, as it relates to burial practices, Lozman said. Students debate appropriate halacha for their projects when — for instance — some graves lay outside the main perimeter fence and an opening is left to symbolically include them. Some students learn how to stencil Hebrew grave inscriptions, while others assist local craftsmen hired to weld the perimeter fence or install gates.
Few Jews remain in Belarus, and the community is largely dependent on aid from Jewish communities abroad. During decades of post-war Soviet rule, Jewish worship and burial were discouraged, and more than a few abandoned cemeteries were obliterated when locals built a theater or sports arena on top of them.
Lozman said he has never encountered anti-Semitism during more than a dozen trips to Belarus, but he recognizes the opportunity his project has to alter misperceptions about Jews and catalyze a deeper understanding of the country’s role in the Holocaust.
In some villages, the Restoration Project sponsors an essay contest for local schoolchildren in which they are asked to research the connection between Jews, their hometown and the Holocaust. All projects culminate with a rededication ceremony for the cemetery, often in the presence of government ministers and community leaders.
Lozman hopes to restore more cemeteries than ever in 2013, and recently created a foundation to help expand capacity. He receives requests from towns in Belarus and Lithuania to partner with the Restoration Project on rehabilitating their own Jewish cemeteries, most of which have gone untended since 1941.
Both Siena College and Union College offer course credit for participation in pre-trip Holocaust studies, and for the restoration project itself. Other schools have turned pre-trip learning and the project into a “mini-term” option, such as Dartmouth College’s Project Preservation.
“To be able to not just study the Holocaust, but to take part in ensuring our Jewish communal heritage in Eastern Europe is not forgotten is extremely meaningful,” said Rabbi Michelle Fisher, executive director of Hillel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fisher hopes to make MIT the Restoration Project’s first Massachusetts partner campus.
“We strive to help students deepen their connections to their Judaism,” Fisher said. “Many students are interested in giving back, and this is one way to do so while deepening their understanding of Jewish history and personal identity.”
In addition to his 11 completed restorations, Lozman works to commemorate victims of notorious Holocaust-era massacres, since many sites remain unmarked. With his focus on Belarus and Lithuania, Lozman works in what Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently labeled “the Bloodlands” of Europe — those Nazi-occupied countries where most of the slaughter took place.
Lozman hopes to restore more cemeteries than ever in 2013, and recently created a foundation to help expand capacity
“I visited a place called Grozovo in Belarus were almost 300 Jews were killed, most of them children,” Lozman said. “I told the mayor of the village I wanted to install a memorial at the forest massacre site with the names of those killed. The was the only thing we could do for these murdered children.”
Though of retirement age, Lozman has no plans to slow down in his “full-time jobs” as an orthodontist and steward of threatened Jewish history. He will continue to serve as a construction foreman at each cemetery, digging holes for fences and uprighting tombstones alongside students one-third his age.
“The world is full of armchair philosophers,” Lozman said. “I am someone who is about getting the job done. There is a universal quality to what we are doing, and every person with a heart feels this is the right thing to do.”