On a beautiful summer day in June—our last in Belarus—I sat mesmerized in the Lunna school, listening to a young Belarussian boy read an essay entitled, “The Jews of Lunna.”  Visibly nervous, his voice often wavered as he read the words he had written so carefully.  Yet his message was clear.  After spending hours upon hours interviewing elderly residents of Lunna, he had come to the conclusion that the Jews, who had been so brutally murdered over 60 years ago, had been killed by the Nazis for no reason other than unfounded prejudices and a deep lack of understanding. 

As my ears filled with the beautiful, yet still unfamiliar, rhythm of the Russian words, my eyes wandered around the room and settled upon my fellow Dartmouth students.  Many of our eyes were filled with tears as the realization of his words hit us.  Entirely on his own, prompted by the knowledge of our impending visit, this boy had sought out Lunna’s elderly residents in order to piece together what had happened to the Jews in his town during the war. Most unbelievable of all, this young man had come to the conclusion that the unfounded hatred which had swept the village years ago must never again be tolerated.

As the boy occasionally glanced up in the course of his essay reading, I thought of the scene which greeted his eyes.  We sat in front of him—20 American college students who represented the tolerance of diversity which he spoke about.  We were African-American, Asian, Indian, Greek, Italian, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.  Our diversity was a unifier rather than a divider, as the richness of our unique backgrounds only contributed to our shared experience.  I was proud that we, many of whom had no ties to Judaism, had come together to restore Lunna’s Jewish cemetery and memorialize its Jewish community.  We proved to this young boy that tolerance and diversity were not simply lofty aspirations, but very attainable goals.

As the sun came streaming in the windows, I thought back to the conversation I’d had in Chicago with 80-year-old Alan Welbel that February.  Mr. Welbel grew up in Lunna and survived two and a half years in Auschwitz, living through one of the darkest times in human existence.  Yet he, too, spoke of the uselessness of hatred and of the importance of tolerance.  This young boy who stood before me was the very age at which Mr. Welbel had been sent to Auschwitz.  The two had played in the same streets growing up, swum in the same river, and run through the same fields.  Thinking about their shared childhoods and perspectives, I couldn’t help but wonder how the two would interact if they were to meet each other.  

Startled out of my reverie, I realized that the boy was nearing the end of his essay.  In his final sentences, he spoke of skin color and religious belief, stating that neither could change the fact that we were all human and, deep down, all alike.   As I glanced around the room again, from the Belarussian townspeople gathered there to the Dartmouth students who had just spent days toiling away in the Lunna cemetery, I realized this could not have been closer to the truth.

We had traveled thousands of miles partly to show Lunna’s residents that someone still cherished and remembered the town’s eradicated Jewish community.  Yet as I stood amongst my fellow students to give the boy an ovation, I realized that we were not the only ones who cared. 

Lydia Gensheimer ‘06