I watched the golden sunshine of late afternoon stream across the cemetery, its rays shining upon each newly uprighted gravestone standing proudly beneath the clear blue sky.  There was an incredible buzz of activity as Dartmouth students worked alongside the children and workers from Lunna, helping each other vigorously clean decades of dirt and lichen off gravestones and upright them with the aid of just a few shovels and the strength of pure determination.  I heard the faint humming of chainsaws as the last of the overgrown brush was cleared away and the finishing touches were made on the fence.

            It was our third day there, and the difference was astounding.  Once abandoned and overgrown, nearly forgotten, the cemetery now looked well-kept and cared for.  With each gravestone we uncovered, we were rediscovering the life of one mother or father, with no one left to remember them as their children likely perished in the Holocaust.  Our mission was not solely to honor the dead, but to also honor and remember the rich Jewish history that once thrived in this small community.

            As I walk about Lunna, the words of Alan Welbel ring loudly in my ears.  In this picturesque community still remain the tented haystacks he napped under as a child and the running river he fished in with his friends.  These were the memories of a child; I thought about his life, and the lives of so many others that were so tragically interrupted by the Holocaust. 

            One of the most enduring aspects of this project is that it forces us to grapple with the most deeply problematic questions about human nature.  I remember Auschwitz I, being greeted by room after room filled with incomprehensibly large piles of confiscated belongings.  To think, the care each family must’ve taken to mark their suitcases with their names, only to be stripped of their humanity upon arriving at the same train tracks of Birkenau that we had walked along earlier that day.  All of a sudden, the events of the Holocaust became starkly real.  It was no longer an abstract history of six million people, but rather, it now became the unimaginable suffering of one human being – with their own family, their own story, and their own right to live; it was the unimaginable suffering of one human being who could feel pain just like I can – multiplied to a magnitude of six million.

            That was the first moment that I truly grasped the universal nature of the Holocaust.  The tears I shed were for the Jewish families that endured such unfathomable suffering, but now they also took on a deeper meaning; they became my personal mourning for whatever it was in our humanity that allowed this to happen.  I gained new depths of respect for the dead and a new appreciation for life.

            I’ll always remember the closeness we shared with our Belarusian community.  Lunna warmly embraced us as well as our mission, and gave generously of their time, labor, and resources.  The local school held an essay contest, and I will never forget one young boy’s entry about the Jewish history of Lunna.  He wrote with a depth of knowledge and an eloquence far beyond his teenage years, asking many of the eternally troubling questions about the Holocaust that many of us had pondered earlier that week.  With his words, we knew that younger generations would not forget about the history of their town, and that the Holocaust and its lessons will be meaningfully remembered.  We had just come from the worst depths of inhumanity at Auschwitz, and I felt that now we were now experiencing the most genuine, remarkable aspects of the human spirit.

            There will always be a special place in my heart reserved for Belarus and the powerful memories we all shared there.  The entire experience was an incredible, life-changing journey, and to this day, our time in Belarus remains, without a doubt, one of the most valuable experiences of my life.

Madeline Hwang ‘05