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Dartmouth students heading to Ukraine to restore Jewish cemeteries

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 06/03/08 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp • (603) 646-3661

Students uncover and right headstones
Students uncover and right headstones in Kamenka, Belarus, in 2004. (credit: Tamer Shabaneh '07)

Dartmouth students restore a Jewish cemetery
Dartmouth students restore a Jewish cemetery and erect a fence in Kamenka, Belarus, in 2004. (credit: Ethan Levine '03 Th '05)
Podcast: Project Preservation, with Rabbi Edward Boraz

By the end of June this year, Dartmouth students will have restored seven Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe through Project Preservation, an annual trip to repair and sometimes rebuild cemeteries abandoned since the Holocaust. The 2008 trip, taking place June 9-19, will visit Stojanov, Ukraine.

Established in 2002, Project Preservation is a Cross Cultural Education and Service Project of the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth. The trip is organized and coordinated by Edward Boraz, the Michael Steinberg '61 Rabbi of Dartmouth College Hillel. Boraz explains that these European villages, once mainly settled by Jews, now have no Jewish residents. The cemeteries, without descendants to care for them, are overgrown, in ruins, and woefully neglected.

Stojanov is the birthplace and former home of author Leon Wells, who appears to be the sole survivor from that town. Wells, who now lives in the U.S., chronicled his life in Stojanov and throughout the Shoah (Holocaust) in his books, Janowska Road (Macmillan Company 1963 and Halo Pr 1999) and Shattered Faith (University Press of Kentucky 1995). Boraz says this year's trip is dedicated to his work. The particular cemetery in Stojanov being restored is bereft of any headstones, according to Boraz, because they were carted away to be used as flooring for the collective farms during the Soviet era.

"I am deeply moved that each year, a diverse group of students of different faith traditions and ethnicities are committed to and willing to confront first hand the legacy of one of the most tragic events in the history of western civilization, the genocide of the Jewish people of Europe," says Rabbi Boraz. "My own humanity and my own rabbinate have been transformed in many ways because of the nature of the encounters I have with students and with this program."

Project Preservation officially begins about 10 weeks before traveling. The students design and implement a 10-week, extra-curricular, course that focuses on understanding genocide, with an emphasis on the Nazi period, its impact on Europe as a whole, and the history of the particular village whose Jewish cemetery they will restore. The students learn from Dartmouth professors and other members of the community.

At the end of this course, the students first journey to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps, where more than 1.1 million people perished. Then the group travels to the village to work on the Jewish cemetery. The students, usually assisted by villagers, cut the grass, right headstones, erect fences, and participate in a ceremony to rededicate the cemetery.

Zoe Dmitrovsky, a member of the class of 2009, went to Druhzkapol, Ukraine, in 2006. "My family is originally from Ukraine, and I had always wanted to visit there," she says. "The most interesting element of the trip for me is that it's not a Jewish trip. Instead, it is a diverse group of students from different religious backgrounds and perspectives, and this dynamic enriches the experience. We learn from each other and our different experiences to consider new ways of thinking about history." Dmitrovsky, who is from Hanover, N.H., and majoring in Middle Eastern studies, will participate in Project Preservation again this summer as a trip leader.

Ethan Levine, a 2003 Dartmouth graduate and 2005 graduate of Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, was on the very first Project Preservation trip in 2002 to Sopotskin, Belarus. "The experience impacted me in a variety of ways," he says. "For one, I grew strongly attached to Eastern Europe as it was a part of my family's history - it inspired me to do more active genealogical research on my family and identified a few towns that they came from. The experience allowed me to connect to a different part of the world completely out of my comfort zone and expand my horizons. Cultural interactions with Eastern Europeans taught me new things about life through a different lens."

Levine, currently working as a senior analyst at an investment management company in Wilton, Conn., has continued his participation with Project Preservation as a volunteer because he wants to help others have similar life-changing experiences. He traveled to Stojanov, Ukraine, in March on a pre-site visit with one of this year's trip leaders.

"Because we are able to go consistently each year, we're developing a modest reputation," says Rabbi Boraz, who is also the rabbi for the Upper Valley Jewish community. "We do receive calls to visit specific villages so as to restore its Jewish cemetery. Sometimes the requests come from people whose ancestors once lived in these towns; sometimes the requests come from the people currently living in the towns who need help preserving their history. I hope we continue this work, because unfortunately, there is no shortage of Jewish cemeteries that need our help."

Project Preservation receives support from the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth and from many individual donors.

Project Preservation destinations:

  • 2002  Sopotskin, Belarus
  • 2003  Indura, Belarus
  • 2004  Kamenka, Belarus
  • 2005  Lunna, Belarus
  • 2006  Druhzkapol, Ukraine
  • 2007  Yurburg, Lithuania
  • 2008  Stojanov, Ukraine

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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