"Belarus is a land of very cheap vodka."  Or so our tour guide, a gregarious Pole named Roman, told us as our bus crossed the Polish-Belarusian border.  While Roman's pronouncements were not always accurate (for instance, his exclamation to our bus driver one day that he would "shoot him in the face" when he was late to pick us up), his assessment of Belarusian vodka was--with a half-liter bottle costing less than $2.

            But it wasn't the cheap liquor prices that had brought us to Belarus.  We were part of a group of eighteen Dartmouth students, led by Rabbi Edward Boraz of the Tucker Foundation and Dartmouth Hillel who had traveled to Belarus for "Project Preservation: A Cross-Cultural Education and Service Project," or to put it more simply, to restore a neglected Jewish cemetery in northwestern Belarus and to better understand the horrors and magnitude of Hitler's "Final Solution."

            For those who might be unaware, Belarus today is a largely agricultural country in Eastern Europe, lacking any real natural boundaries.  Bordered by Poland in the west, Ukraine in the south, Russia in the east, and Lithuania and Latvia in the north, it is one of the poorest and least-developed parts of Europe.  Since the fall of communism, all of its neighbors have made the transition to democracy, but Belarus has remained trapped in the past. While capitalism has yet to take root and foreign investment remains virtually non-existent, Belarus is the only dictatorship remaining in Europe.  For most Belarusians, very little has changed over the past fifteen years. 

            Alexander Lukashenko, a former Communist apparatchik, has been the country's president since 1994, retaining power by suppressing his political opposition and tampering with election results.  The government maintains an active secret police that jails dissidents and sustains an atmosphere of fear among the citizenry.  As one Belarusian university student told us when asked what she thought of the Lukashenko regime, "They don't show us the election results on TV, and we don't ask any questions about them.  Now I must go to the other room." 

            Everything in Belarus is just a little different than it is elsewhere: crossing the border takes four hours (although the border police can be bribed with cans of beer), the showers in the state-owned Hotel Tourist lack curtains for unknown reasons, pizza is often served with pickles on it, the state-controlled television news station only shows endless pictures of farmers happily harvesting grain and policemen directing traffic, and the main thoroughfare in the city of Grodno, Soviet Street, connects Soviet Square and Lenin Square.    

            Belarus' political and economic stagnation has only made the condition of the country's Jewish cemeteries even worse.  Before the Second World War, Belarus was home to approximately 400,000 Jews.  A part of Tsarist Russia before the First World War, much of Belarus fell under Polish rule between the wars, only to be absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1939 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  Even before the Germans invaded Belarus in June 1941, anti-Semitism was no stranger to the area: thousands of Jews (includingthe great-grandparents of one of the authors) left before the outbreak of war because of their status as second-class citizens. 

            The Nazi invasion, however, completely extinguished Jewish life in Belarus.  Estimates vary, but at least 250,000 Belarusian Jews were killed by the Germans during the course of the Second World War: some immediately shot by the Einsatzgruppen after the German army rolled through Belarus, some in the gas chambers of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Birkenau, and some in the labor camps of Auschwitz.

            Since then, the Jewish cemeteries of Belarus have largely fallen into disrepair.  Since most of the country's synagogues were destroyed or heavily desecrated, leaving few physical signs that there ever was a Jewish population in Belarus.  Except, of course, the cemeteries--even after all of the relatives of those buried there have died or moved elsewhere, the cemeteries linger.  Without relatives to care for them, the cemeteries have fallen into disrepair: gravestones were knocked over during the war, when German soldiers drove their tanks through the cemeteries to eradicate any last trace of the Jewish populace; the cemeteries have become overgrown and filled with debris; others have become grazing areas for the local livestock.  In the countryside, many villagers are completely unaware that the area even was a cemetery, let alone that it was a sacred space for the town's Jewish residents. 

            The cemetery that we encountered in Lunna, a tiny village about a 45-minute drive from the Polish border, was in such a state.  This was the fourth trip Dartmouth students had made to restore a Jewish cemetery: in 2002, Dartmouth students repaired the cemetery in Sopotskin, in 2003, Indura, and in 2004, Kamenka.  The village we traveled to this year, Lunna, was the home to approximately 1,500 Jews before the Second World War. Today, only three of Lunna's Jews are still alive, and none have remained there.  The town's population has still not reached its pre-war level.  The Jewish cemetery might as well have been a field: covered in tall grass, most of the headstones had been knocked over, and what had once been a small grove of trees in the center of the cemetery had become an impenetrable thicket.  The cemetery was surrounded by a well-worn dirt road, but it was nearly impossible to tell that the area was a cemetery from afar. 

            Upon reaching the cemetery, our first work was to erect a fence that would surround the cemetery, demarcating the area for the villagers and preventing stray livestock from wandering through it.  After a day spent digging post-holes and another day pouring concrete, the cemetery was encircled by a cast-iron fence with decorative Stars of David.  The cemetery also now had a clearly-defined entry, with an arch of sorts and a plaque explaining the fate of the Jews of Lunna.  Next, with the assistance of a weed-whacker and some local day-laborers with chainsaws, we cleared out the interior of the cemetery.  Finally, the gravestones were cleaned, dug out, and raised.  The names and information contained on the headstones were recorded for later posting on the Internet, so that relatives might be able to find where their ancestors are buried (the website http://www.dartmouth.edu/~projpreservation/ will contain the information, for all those who might be interested).

            After five days of work in the cemetery, the area was dramatically transformed.  Lives that would have disappeared into eternity had been brought back into our collective memory.  We had literally brought the cemetery to life.  Hundreds of gravestones were now upright in neat rows, the grass had been trimmed, and it was clear once again that the area was a Jewish cemetery.  The next step would be to plot each stone on an interactive map, in order to allow Jews from around the globe to locate their ancestor's places of burial. 

            But we hadn't just changed the physical landscape of Lunna: we had made an impact on the villagers as well.  Most of the people in Lunna had never met an American before, let alone a group of twenty of them.  Their exposure to America had previously consisted mainly of blue jeans, saccharine pop music, and a vague conception of a distant enemy.  We played an impromptu soccer game against the local high school team (to no one's surprise, the Belarusians won handily), stayed with local families for an evening of generous portions of Russian food and mutual incomprehension, and spent a night at what passes for the local discotheque.  By the end of our stay in Lunna, we had created friendships and improved the lives of the town's residents, if only for a short period of time.

Michael J. Ellis 06 and Bennat Berger 06