If Not Us, Then Who?

ďSo, that place Belarus you travel to every year, thatís a town in Russia, right?Ē
ďMy grandparents come from somewhere over there, as to what town, I have no idea.Ē
ďWhy donít you restore cemeteries where there actually are Jewish communities?Ē 

Over the past four years, I have heard people say the above to me over and over again.  I donít blame these people for their ignorance because frankly I was just as uninformed four years ago before I embarked on a journey and adventure that I think will inspire me for many years down the road.  So far, Iíve been able to travel back to Belarus each successive year and help lead and take part in project after project.

Yet, I continue to receive the aforementioned remarks and never get tired talking about my experiences abroad as they have found a valuable place in my heart.  When I come back from each trip, I enjoy telling people the meaningfulness of the experience with the hope of similarly inspiring and engaging them.  There is so much to still be learned, so much to still be discovered and I hope to get many others involved.

When I first heard of the trip, I had only heard of Belarus in the Olympics.  The only personal connection at the time was that I knew my family came from Eastern Europe.  I didnít know for certain.  Quite frankly (to quote Stephen A. Smith), it didnít concern me.  I then entered a porthole into another world Ė a world that once was and still exists today.  I traveled to these shtetls that once exhibited thriving Jewish communities, and although the day-to-day culture (minus the religion) is still left today, the communities are lost.  We would read uncovered gravestones and after each name was read aloud, we realized that those that these names may not have been uttered in over 60 years.  They were just lost memories, lost stories.  Still, would I really be able to make a difference by restoring a part of a community that no longer exists?  I returned from my first trip, inspired, but still speculative.

With a little effort, I displayed the trip on the internet.  I received e-mails from descendents of these little towns wondering whether we came across their ancestorís gravestone.  Everything began to come full circle for me.  We were bringing the history of these villages to the present and, by documenting our work, preserving this history for many generations.

I then had my own epiphany - I wanted to discover and learn about my own familyís history.  It prompted me to speak with my living grandparents and gather as much information as I possibly could about where my family came from.  I ended up searching through Ellis Island documents and finally found the manifest of the ship my great grandmother took to the United States from Eastern Europe.  On it was listed a town, Koropiec, that had a population of no more than 175 people prior to World War II.  Yet, I found it situated in present day Ukraine (once part of Austria and then Poland).  This discovery inspired me to look deeper into my other family membersí pasts and unearth some stories and pieces of information I had never heard of.  Some day in the future, I hope to travel to these villages, maybe even complete similar projects.  I realized that if I didnít do the research and the work, it might never be done and would be lost in the past.  The same can be said for this project.  The work that we have so meaningfully accomplished is work that, if not done now, may never be completed.  Still, thereís much more that needs to be completed.  Thatís why I donít ever mind answering questions about it, just hoping to motivate more people to participate.

Ethan Levine í03 Thí05
Advisor to Project Preservation 2005