I didnít know what to expect going into this tripI signed up for the Belarus cross-cultural exchange project because I had never done something like this before.  In a nutshell, my mental dialogue was this: ďIím 19, a freshman in college, nowís the time to do something completely funky.  Besides, when will I have another opportunity to go to Belarus?Ē  The trip appealed to me because everyone I met who had been involved with the project in the past seemed so dedicated to it.  They talked about the project as if it was the most rewarding experience of their lives.  The mission they had taken on was to carry out an amazing Mitzvah; I wanted to help.  I also felt that since all of my Grandparents/Great-Grandparents came from Eastern Europe it was important for me to see where my family came from and to meet the people who currently live there.

            Seeing the cemetery in its initial state was one of the most disheartening moments of the trip.  Apart from a few headstones poking through the tall grass, there was no indication that the ground we were standing on was anything more than an unkempt field.  I was saddened by the fact that the cemetery had gotten to this state through 50+ years of neglect.  When I remembered why this had come to pass, I realized that the scene before me was repeated hundreds of times throughout Europe.  The large number of abandoned cemeteries that exist, and the loss they represented, was incredibly depressing to think about.  I began to see why we had come to Belarus. 

            As our week of work in the cemetery progressed, more villagers came out to help us each day.  As I met different members of the community I wondered why they had not acknowledged what was in their backyard previous to our arrival.  To me, caring for the cemetery in Lunna was not just about honoring the dead.  By choosing to ignore the cemetery I feel that the history of the region was taken for granted.  No one was left in their town to care for the cemetery because 50+ years ago their Jewish neighbors were forced from their homes and, in most cases, murdered at Treblinka or Auschwitz.  I was incredibly disturbed that the death of 6 million human beings was so quickly forgotten.  Didnít these people realize why the cemetery lay abandoned in their backyard?

At this point in the trip, and for some time after I returned home, I was incredibly disillusioned by our mission.  We came from America to respect the memories of those who died, but I felt that our actions were almost in vain.  What had we expected to accomplish?  Our group flew 4000 miles around the world to stay in Belarus for one week and essentially tell people who had lived in this region for generations that their home meant something to us and that they should care about it too.  I felt like we were embodying the stereotype of the pushy American.  Did we have a right to do this?  Some of these people lived in homes with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing.  What did we know about the place they lived?  This realization especially bothered me because I was concerned for the cemeteryís future.  For all of the speeches and promises we heard, I wondered whether the people of Lunna really understood our concern for the piece of history in their backyard.  If so, would they adopt the cemetery and treat it as if their own relatives were buried there?  Would they upright the remaining stones?  When walking past the cemetery, would they pause to consider what it represented?  While in Belarus I was completely confused by the fact that we, 4000 miles away, are troubled by the Holocaust and they are not though they have an ever-present reminder of the missing portion of their village.  I still havenít come to terms with this.

            I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this trip as well as reflecting on the experience with the other participants.  Discussing our shared experiences and seeing how people of different backgrounds reacted to the same event was invaluable to me.  I am extremely grateful that I was able to use the other participants as a sounding board to figure out why/how certain experiences affected me.  Thinking back on our time in Poland and Belarus, many things that happened still puzzle me.  Despite this, I believe that with time I will come to understand what this experience means to me and how it has changed the way I perceive the world around me.

Elysa Corin Ď08