Etched onto the face of United States coins’ appears the phrase “E Pluribus Unum.”  Translated as “From Many, One,” these words represent a principle goal of our nation since its founding: to form a coherent, thriving culture from the hodgepodge of nationalities, races and religions that form its constituency.  Despite this underlying objective, diversity has proved a difficult force to harness.  Over 150 years after the Founders promised equality to all, discrimination and persecution continued to splinter America.  Even today, when higher learning institutions pride themselves on statistics, careful observation often suggest that these numbers obscure only limited integration.  Difficulties surrounding diversity within America are merely a microcosm of international tensions.  So, as 20 Dartmouth students from a multitude of different backgrounds gathered in preparation for their cross-cultural service project to Lunna, Belarus, their expectations could be overshadowed by nothing except for maybe the immensity of the task which awaited them.

The ultimate goal of our trip was to erect a fence around a Jewish cemetery which had been destroyed by the Nazis and neglected ever since.  When we first arrived at the old Lunna cemetery, many of us were unsure what exactly we were looking at.  A crooked dirt road awkwardly enclosed a patch of land overgrown by weeds and brush.  Looking closer we noticed several corroded stones protruding from the tall grass.  Five days later, the eyes of Lunna townspeople who attended the dedication ceremony revealed a similar disbelief.  Rows and rows of uprighted gravestones cast long shadows across the freshly pruned earth.  After hours of digging, straining and lifting had restored the memorials to prominence, an army of scrubs and buckets had scrapped away layers of fungus to reveal legible Hebrew names commemorating the lives of those who had long since been forgotten.   An iron-wrought fence had replaced the decrepit road as the cemetery’s guardian, leaving no doubt that the site was sacred and respected.   As we walked away from the new Lunna cemetery, we knew that the handful of us had defied a regime bent on hate and genocide to save a history which teetered on disappearance.

Really though, the physical act of reviving the cemetery was the easiest thing we did on that trip.  Far more challenging and equally as important was engaging a town who had allowed its Jewish past to be forgotten.  Sifting through the convoluted, often contradictory accounts of wartime events was draining and painful for everyone involved. Yet regardless of what had actually taken place, interaction with the local Belarussians hinged on our ability to accept that the younger generations in Lunna bore no direct responsibility for this past.  As we worked in the cemetery alongside young Belarussians, this understanding allowed the formation of friendships which surpassed lingual and cultural bounds.  The smiles and laughs shared during the soccer game, homestays and banquets became hugs and tears upon goodbye.   In Lunna, Americans and Belarussians became a single people.  And when three Belarussian children read their essays on the tragedy of the Lunna Jews, the past became the future.  We had not only preserved memory, but created a new one, one which I am confident will be everlasting.

Yet all of this would have been unachievable had our group not become, well just that, a group.   At first glance, it must have been difficult to see how we were all connected.   The 20 of us represented a variety of different races, identified with numerous different religions and had ancestries which stretched across the globe.  Consequently, as we gathered at Newark Airport on June 13th each of us harbored unique hopes and expectations for the trip.  It would be untrue to say that this diversity did not create bumps in the road. Tension and disputes certainly did result. But rather than detracting from the experience, our distinct perspectives added an invaluable dimension to our project.   An overflow of ideas created new elements which pushed previous bounds and expanded the meaning of the work we did.  The passion of every student to realize what they perceived to be the project’s intent had a cumulative effect, inspiring even greater dedication among other participants.  At Auschwitz, devotion became compassion as we supported each other in ways which made unbearable images at least somewhat sufferable.  Thus, by the time we arrived back home, diversity itself had become a source of unity and the many of us had become one. 

Looking back, we restored the cemetery, erected the fence, engaged a community and created inseparable personal bonds.  But for me, the most encouraging aspect of this year’s Project Preservation is the certainty that each of us will go our separate ways.  Following our own paths, we will go out and share what we have learned with different people in different places.  In this way, it is our very differences which will ensure not only the future of this project but also the preservation of the Holocaust memory as a whole.   From here, prevention of mass genocide in the future is all the more possible.

Danny Ellman ’06