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 Trip 3 - 2004

 

 

 

 

 Kamenka, Belarus

 

 

 

 

 

 Trip 2 - 2003

 Indura, Belarus

 

 

 

 

 Trip 1 - 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 Sopotskin, Belarus

 

Reflections

Trip 2 - Indura, Belarus - August/September 2003


 

Reflections

Compiled by Lydia Gensheimer

 

 

We arrived as an assortment of college students and staff; we came from different heritages, backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities.  Yet once we got there, it didn’t matter if one of us spoke Russian, or if another did not.  We all recited the Mourner’s Kaddish at Auschwitz, Jewish or not.  We taught each other, we learned from each other.

            We left Belarus as a group, a team, a conglomerate.  The things we had experienced on this trip affected each and every one of us. We left frightened, astonished, vulnerable, and scared, yet wiser, older, and more mature all at the same time.  Our feelings were mixed, our experiences varied.  But regardless of our individual experiences, we left together with a deep connection.  Each of us knew we would be forever affected by and could never forget our experience.

            This book is an attempt to record some of our memories and reflections.  The entries are honest, heart-felt, and true.  It would be a sheer impossibility to record every moment, every experience, every feeling.  Yet we hope to convey some of the feelings and share some of our experiences.  We will never forget the crematorium at Auschwitz nor the dilapidated, yet beautiful old synagogue in Grodno. We will never be able to forget the fence, stretching panel after panel after panel.  And most importantly, we won’t forget the people we met, the lives we touched and those who touched ours in so many ways. 

           

 

 

 

Rabbinic Reflections on the Journey to Poland

And Belarus

 

            This year’s journey to Poland and Belarus was one of great personal meaning for me as Rabbi of Dartmouth Hillel.  Attending Shabbat services and seeing the remnant of Jews praying in an anteroom in the Great synagogue of Grodno left a deep impression on the importance of Jewish continuity here in the United States.  There was profound sadness in realizing the enormous loss of our people, culture, and faith, in that small room where both men and women had difficulty chanting even the most fundamental parts of Jewish liturgy.  At the same time, one could feel the “Shechinah” - the divine presence filling the room.  Though separated by language and culture, we were Jews observing Shabbat.   It was unforgettable.

 

            The people of Indura welcomed us with open arms.  Clearly, they want to show themselves as the most gracious hosts.  The Chairmen of the City Council made certain that everyone of our needs were met, from providing us with laborers to assisting us in our work.  Indura toasted our efforts at two wonderful feasts that celebrated our work and our shared humanity.  It is difficult to convey the sense of friendship that these good people showed us throughout our stay.  It was genuine and sincere.  They thought our work important and so it was.

 

            We never forgot the connection between our experience at Auschwitz and our work at Indura and Sepotskin.  I continuously juxtapose the images of the fields of Birkenau and the Jewish cemeteries of Indura and Sepotskin.  I believe that the spirits of those who lay in both will be carried in our souls.

 

            Being one of the elders on this experience, my most vivid memories are those of the students who treated this journey with dignity, respect, and also with a deep appreciation for life itself.  It was neither all sober nor sadness.  There were times of joy and laughter.  Most of all, they brought an enthusiastic dedication to bring forward this tragic past and to transform it into one of hope for all that is good and decent in this world.

 

                                -Rabbi Edward S. Boraz, Ph.D.

                                Michael Steinberg ’61 Rabbi of Dartmouth College Hillel

 

 

 

 

Reflections on the Cross Cultural Trip to Belarus

 

Aug. 26 – Sept. 9, 2003

 

I was very proud and honored to be one of the staff on such a wonderful and meaningful trip.  All of the students were nothing less than hard-working, reflective, and loads of fun!  We briefly experienced a different life-style and culture making real life-effecting connections to a part of the world that most people don’t ever get the opportunity to see.

 

Krakow was beautiful and Warsaw was large and full of history. The antiquity of the architecture in Poland captivates one’s eye while there, but was definitely not caught in my photos. We have nothing here in the U.S. that is even remotely similar. Also, I will never forget the vastness and eeriness of Auschwitz. Some of the exhibits were too painful to even look at.  

 

In Indura we met Felixa and her family who lived across the road from the cemetery where we worked.  They couldn’t do enough to help us; nor could the school director or the town manager.  Their hospitality was overwhelming.

 

I found every minute of this trip to be much more than I could have expected or hoped for.  I’d go again in a heartbeat!  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of such an exceptional team!

 

                                    -Claudia Palmer

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you go on a trip or experience something for the first time and that first encounter is successful, you often set certain expectations for the experience.  Before embarking on this past summer’s trip, I had set certain expectations based upon the project from the previous summer.  I thought that nothing could beat that experience and was actually setting myself for somewhat of a disappointment.  To my pleasant surprise, the trip exceeded my expectations ten-fold.

 

I have been able to see the trip and project evolve from just an idea to a reality to a really successful trip.  It’s amazing how one year a precedent can be set and the following year the project really becomes an immense success.  To me, this project has become the complete project.  It encompasses so many things from education to history to culture to social activities to religion to physical service to just plain fun.  In such a short period of time, so many things were accomplished and it amazes me to look back and to think how we were able to accomplish all that we did in two weeks.  Obviously, such things could never be accomplished without the amazing group I felt that we had this year.

 

It’s so gratifying to realize how others on the trip got as much out of the project as I did.  To put in over a year of work towards the two weeks that we all spent abroad and to see it come out as successful as it did, really has made me feel happy and proud.  I’m ecstatic that everyone really enjoyed the experience.

 

I would try to go into great detail about all of the different aspects of the trip and how each aspect has made me grow and mature in different ways, but I have found explaining my emotions and feelings extremely difficult.  I’ve tried through different medias – writing, powerpoint presentations, conversations, pictures and speeches – but I feel the real meaning of the trip can only be expressed to others experientially.

 

To me, that gives me motivation to really work hard to make sure this trip is successful in the future, to make sure more students and individuals are engaged in such a great and moving experience.  I believe in this project and think it is so important in so many ways from helping people mature to educating foreign cultures to providing a service that preserves the past for the future.  These reasons resonate so deeply within me that I hope to be connected with this project for so many years to come.  It’s exciting J.

                                                                                   

                                -Ethan Levine

 

 

 

 

 

 

A trip for a group of university students from the US to Belarus is an exercise in contrast. For me, the most powerful of those contrasts rests between the Jewish communities from which we hail, and those that exist in Belarus. This year we had a unique opportunity of visiting the only remaining and active synagogue in Grodno. Not only does the building still exist, but a small, yet surviving Jewish community inhabits it. The sanctuary is reminiscent of the grandeur of the Jewish communities of the 19th and 18th centuries - a large, grand, elaborate room, with galleries and inscriptions, capable of holding 2,000+. Today, its walls are white-washed and the galleries are filled with debris, as the funds to renovate it have run dry. But the minyan of Jews still pray every week, without any knowledge of Hebrew, led by a Chabad rabbi. We had the good fortune of praying with them, and joining them for a short Kiddush snack after the service one Sabbath. We told them that my great grandmother was from Grodno - and as I sat in their synagogue, I kept thinking - this is where my great grandmother may have prayed. The members of their community were visibly moved, some to tears, as we told them we wanted to help them, that we come from huge, flourishing Jewish worlds and how we admire their courage and perseverance for continuing to practice our 6000 year old tradition in a place where our ancestors were annihilated 60 years ago.

This idea of transition and change - how the Jewish populous of the world used to be centered in Eastern Europe, in cities such as Grodno which were 60%+ Jewish, and now the largest populations of Jewry are in Israel and the United States - yet still in Belarus, there are a handful of communities that live on. Despite their lack of knowledge regarding Jewish custom and the Hebrew language, their zest for their heritage drives them to be the sole surviving notion of Judaism in place that was its center years before.

This contrast continued during our visits to Indura and Sopotskin. In these towns, formerly 50%+ Jewish, the kids now grow up without learning about the holocaust and the Jews that used to inhabits their town. They ski in the abandoned cemetery, refer to the Hebrew writing on the stones as "hieroglyphics", and learn only about Catholicism and Russian orthodoxy. So there we were - not only on a mission to build a fence, but with a desire to leave these kids, and these towns, informed about our ancestors, knowledgeable about their fellow townspeople, and attune to their past. Contrast that to the United States, where the National Holocaust Museum stands on the mall in Washington, where our last democratic VP nominee was an orthodox Jew, where Hannukah is almost as publicized as Christmas in certain parts of the country. Again, here we are, forced to acknowledge the dichotomy between the past, and the present. Our job: mold the future. Remember the fallen Jewish communities of Belarus, by re-defining their sacred ground and instilling the idea of memory and toleration in their youth.

Any look into ones past conjures deep and powerful emotions. To be faced with those issues in the context of the contrasts between modern day American Jewry and the literally vanished communities of Eastern Europe was an amazing and life-changing experience. To witness a barely surviving Jewish community in Grodno, and to pray with them, was deeply moving. To see tears run down their cheeks when we thanked them for living on our tradition long ago lost in their world - was altogether among the most powerful sights I have yet to experience.

While this is only one of the experiences that changed me during my time in Belarus and Poland, it has stood out in my mind as a guiding principle. I must always be conscious of the stark contrast that often exists between the past and the present, between my world and the world of others. Educating, celebrating, memorializing are all steps in this process, and it takes only one look at someone whose life you may have enlightened to realize the magnitude of these processes, both for you and for them.

                                                                                               

                                    -Evan Konwiser

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts that came to me at Auschwitz

 

It is an extremely beautiful and sunny summer day. The weather is so perfect for being happy to live in this world, for being grateful that a little bit more than 18 years ago my mother gave me a chance to be born on this planet to enjoy its sunshine and wind, to breathe its air, to laugh with people around me, to smile and be smiled at in return, to love, to have children – TO LIVE. It’s a perfect, gorgeous day. But I look around me, and what do I see…

There was white snow and gray ice here once. The clouds were floating above the town and they were hiding the heavenly light, there was yellow smoke above the town. These people lived under the light of the star called the Sun. But then they had to face the war that had no special purpose, the abhorrent anti-wrinkle medicine as they say. And there were streams of red-red blood and tragedy and grief.

But the world spins pretty fast and in an hour the blood-covered land becomes just land again, in two hours there is grass and flowers on it, in three it is alive again and warmed by the rays of the star called the Sun.

I am sitting here and staring at this land. Millions of small black cobblestones on the ground, a railroad going towards the horizon, rusted barbed wire hanging from the poles, ruins of a structure with a horrible name “gas chamber,” and metal plates with words in a dozen European languages telling me that I am at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

And I wonder… I have no words – just an overflow of contradicting emotions, which are running through my head… Every single person, the only last trace of whom on this Earth is this tiny black dusty cobblestone, was also admiring a sunny summer day one day, every single one of them was also thankful that he lived and saw the sparkling green grass and heard birds singing, undoubtedly every single one of them did. But then it was taken away from them, completely, brutally and forever. And I am walking on the cobblestones, which are multiple graves, endless memorials that do not remember the words “yes” and “no”, that do not remember names or addresses, but that have souls, human souls behind them. These people did not get a chance to live. Someone who had no right to do it ended their lives with a full stop… WHY?

Thank you, Mother and Father, for bringing me into this world, thank you for sharing all the good things that it has.

 

 

And thank you everyone, who shared the two amazing, life-changing weeks in Eastern Europe with me. They made me feel even more alive.

 

 

                                    -Iryna Kholkina

 

 

 

 

 

 

            When asked how my trip to Eastern Europe went, I can only say… completely amazing and life changing.  If I were to say any more than that, I would have to go on for hours and hours in order to just scratch the surface about my time with the rest of the team in Belarus and Poland.  From the moment we arrived in Poland, I knew that the trip was going to be far different than any other service trip that I have ventured to take part in.  Just the mere fact that we were half way around the world in a country where we knew nothing of the language created a significant difference between this trip and all the others.  But what was really special about the trip went far beyond the obvious differences that come along with being in another country. 

 

            The beginning of the trip consisted of a few days in Poland where we visited the Concentration camps at Auschwitz and the Jewish quarters in Krakow.  Being raised Jewish and having family who came from Poland, made this piece of the trip particularly interesting and emotional.  I had always wanted to see Auschwitz and this trip gave me the opportunity to do so.  Though I don’t look at my experience visiting Auschwitz in a positive light, it is something that I feel was very important for me to do, and something that will forever change how I think and feel about my heritage and the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust.  It was an incredible experience to stand at Auschwitz and look around, picturing the thousands of suffering human beings being who were horded around and slaughtered like cattle.  This is a feeling that I will never forget and I’m sure I will look back on it later and realize how much it has affected my life.

 

            Although it sounds now that the trip was simply depressing, this is not the case.  After spending some time in Poland, we headed to Belarus to begin the construction of the fence around the Jewish cemetery in Indura.  It was there in the village of Indura where the real magic, in my mind, took place.  When we arrived in Indura, what we found was a hill, with a lot of old tombstones partially sticking out of the ground, struggling to be viewed as a cemetery.  The villagers in Indura, especially the children, had no idea that the cemetery was a Jewish cemetery, in fact, one boy who was in the eighth grade told me he had figured that the Hebrew writing on the tombstones was Egyptian hieroglyphics.  The adults in the community seemed to have only slightly more knowledge about the Jewish history of the area and of the cemetery.  We were clearly in a part of the world where Judaism was no longer an issue, not after the holocaust anyway.  To me however, it was the villagers’ initial ignorance of the events of the Holocaust and their apparent lack of knowledge having to do with Jewish life, which allowed for this trip to be so entirely amazing. 

 

            From the moment we began our work on the construction of the fence, and the beautification of the cemetery, the villagers, everyone from the Mayor of the village, to the parents and all the way down to the smallest children, became entirely engaged with our purpose there.  In only four days of work, I saw an entire community change.  I saw the community of Indura change from a community with little understanding of Jewish life or of the reasons Americans would travel halfway around the world to work on a cemetery in their little village; I saw a community change from a community with little respect for those Jews buried in that cemetery and entirely disinterested with learning about it; I saw this community change to a community that cares about the cemetery, a village that poured their hearts (and resources) into the work that they helped us to accomplish, and most importantly, into a community with a newly opened mind about the history of their village and a greater understanding and appreciation for the work that we were there to complete.  It was this transition that I saw in the community of Indura, which has forever changed my feelings about the world and the people in it.  It was the connection that was formed between myself, the rest of the group, and the Belarussians, that has, in many ways, changed the way that I intend to live my life, and has opened me up and made me realize the extent that someone can change with only a small amount of enlightenment.

 

            In short, the trip that I went on with the rest of the Dartmouth group to Eastern Europe during the summer of 2003 has forever changed my view of the world.  I learned a tremendous amount from the experience about other cultures, about people’s ability to change and about both the immense horrors as well as the incredible beauty that has been accomplished by mankind.  The trip provided me with the most educational, emotional and fun couple weeks of my life! 

 

                                -Mike Mina

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

If you were to ask me to tell you about the trip to Belarus, I could tell you stories about opening my eyes to the Jewish religion as my new-found friends discovered the area of the world where their ancestries lie, recount the inspiring sense of accomplishment at the cemetery restoration effort we worked so hard on, and the humbling sense of respect for a storied heritage and its suffering in recent world history.

If I told you about all of these things though, I would only be telling you half of the story.  And that’s the story you might expect.  And as amazing as that experience was, I am going to tell you about this other story.  The other story, and the one that I never anticipated, is the story of re-discovering that amazing connection between human beings—especially the closeness we felt to a small group of people with whom we shared neither a common language nor a common history.  From the time when we, a bubbly group of English-speaking foreigners, showed up at the site in Indura on the first day, the community welcomed us with open arms and did everything possible to help.  They offered their services, their tools, their time, and their labor.  Even though there was only one Jewish family remaining in Indura, and much of the younger generation had no idea that this was a Jewish cemetery that lay right in their town, somehow, what was important to us became important to them, and every day, a large crowd assembled ready to help us dig holes for the fence, mix cement, and raise gravestones.  Families welcomed us into their homes for a night, and we spent most of the night showing pictures, drawing pictures, communicating with their 10 words of English and our 3 words of Russian, and making toasts—and yet, we smiled a lot and we laughed a lot and by the time the morning came around, we felt genuine affection for each other.  As intense and amazing as the rest of the trip was, especially learning about Jewish history and seeing where it actually happened, there’s something to be said about finding human beings that you feel connected to halfway around the earth, and learning that four days with each other will teach you much, reshape your beliefs, and make you cry when you have to leave.  In Sopotskin, I stayed with a girl who spoke excellent English and asked me, “Do you really like it here?” with a skeptical look on her face.  She studied my face as she waited for an answer.  Yes, I replied.  I love it here.  I wish I could stay.  People here remember how to be human, life (might be harder, but it) is simpler, families are closer, and you have a beautiful view from the hill behind your house and apple juice from a tree in your backyard.  Somehow, it took my traveling halfway around the world to figure that out.

 

                    -Madeline Hwang

                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

A majority of my trip to Belarus and Poland the summer of 2003 was seen through a camera lens.  I knew ahead of time that this trip was going to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  I wanted to document it as thoroughly as possible.  Since I became “designated” photographer, I often look back on the trip as a slide show of all the pictures I took.  Therefore, in trying to sum up the experience, it is much easier for me to explain it through photographs.

Out of the over one thousand pictures that we all took on the trip, there is one that stands out in my mind as symbolic of everything the trip stood for and everything I gained from the trip.  On the last day of construction in Indura, the entire group gathered around the newly constructed cemetery entrance to take a group photo.  All of the Dartmouth students are gathered under the red metal gate marking the entrance to the cemetery.  We are huddled around our adult leaders.  Mixed in with the group are children from Indura.  Trees and bushes frame the cemetery that acts as our backdrop.  If you look very carefully, you can see the profiles of headstones rising up at the top of the hill in front of a perfectly blue sky. 

The first element of this photograph that is emblematic of my experience in Belarus is the gate.  The gate is a concrete object that we left behind in Belarus.  It is an accomplished goal, what we went to Belarus to do.  It is also much more.  When I look at us gathered under it, I remember the first day of construction.  We all learned so much in that one day, from how to dig holes in the rocky soil to how to mix cement.  Also, more importantly, we learned on that day how to communicate without a shared language.  The sense of learning from each other, us sharing with the Belarussians and them sharing with us, was continued throughout the entire project.  We taught them about the history of Indura.  They taught us about the present and future of Indura. 

This sharing and communicating is the second thing that this photograph represents to me.  Under the gate are gathered a group of people.  To an outsider, this crowd could easily look like any gathering of people.  It is not at all evident that the children are Belarussian while the teenagers and adults are American.  That was one of the most important lessons I learned.  It truly did not matter that we did not speak the same language.  We were able to bond with so many people during our stay in Belarus.  Personally, I made friends with both a little girl from Indura and university students from Grodno.  One of the most memorable experiences from the whole trip was when my home stay sister, who spoke no English, dressed me up for a dance because the only clothes I had were my work clothes from that day.  Despite what would seem like cultural differences, she had the same desires that any other thirteen-year-old would have.  She wanted to look nice, wanted me to feel comfortable, and wanted us to be friends.  It amazed me that we really were very similar and could get along so well.

Finally, the Stars of David that are integral to the design of the gate show the overall Jewish theme that this trip had for me.  Judaism has always been an incredibly important part of my life.  I am, however, an American Jew.  I only know about the Holocaust through books, movies, and classes.  I only know about the shtetls that my great-grandparents emigrated from through Fiddler on the Roof.  The opportunity to, essentially, return home and see where I am from and visit the sites that are so important to the modern history of the Jewish people was priceless.  It sometimes feels as if many of the traditions and values that my ancestors came to America to be able to uphold are lost in the fast track of twenty-first century life.  Having the first hand knowledge of the countryside of Belarus, the people of Eastern Europe, and the scale of the Warsaw Ghetto will allow me to pass these traditions on to my children and their children.  Hopefully, I will be able to help keep something alive.  Part of that, also, was bringing my faith and tradition back to Belarus.  Visiting a struggling, but growing, synagogue in Grodno on Shabbat was something I will never forget.  Explaining, through a translator, to children about the Jewish people who used to live in their town was incredible.

In the end, however, everything I just wrote is an easy way out for me. 

Analyzing a photograph as a way of compartmentalizing the experience was simple.  It only begins to scratch the surface of the trip.  Trying to write about a clear blue day in Auschwitz could fill an entire book, forget Warsaw, Krakow, and Brest.  Anything I would try and say about those days would never be nearly as eloquent, meaningful, and provocative as I intended.  So this is my reflection.  It is my one photograph.  There are hundreds more.  Thankfully, I will always have them to show to people to describe the indescribable. 

 

                                -Libby Sherman

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

The most memorable time for me was definitely our first day working at the cemetery in Indura.  That entire day epitomizes the experiences I had on the trip.  Probably the most special moment for me during those two weeks was when we walked into the town cafeteria that first evening and were treated to a feast.  We had worked hard all day in the cemetery, starting with people waiting for us that morning as the bus pulled into the entrance for the first time.  After impassioned debate we were able to start the construction of the fence.  I had worked on putting up the gate, and the townspeople had brought us spikes and metal tubes to aid in the hole-digging when they saw how ineffective our shovels were in the packed soil.  People kept arriving during the course of the day; some watched what was going on, and others who helped us work.  The Belarussian’s work ethic was amazing- they never stopped for a break!!  Later in the afternoon, after a long day’s work, we had been rushed directly from the cemetery site to the school’s soccer fields, where what looked to be most of the town had come out to watch the Americans play their own Belorussian team.  After the game, we were surrounded by schoolboys who wanted us all to sign a poster they had made that announced the game.  From the field, we went to the cafeteria, where we were greeted with two tables heaping with watermelon, tomatoes, bread, fish, vodka and other foods, in what ended up being a many-course meal.  The afternoon sun was shining in brightly through the curtains and I felt so appreciated at that moment, maybe even undeservingly so, knowing that all this had been prepared just for us.  I was in awe of the quantity of hospitality that had been bestowed on us in just one day in Indura.  The following days were similar to the first, with unceasing hospitality shown to us by our Belarusian hosts.

The human connections that formed on the trip were another one of the things I value most about the experience.  By having the ability to meet and interact with the people of Belarus, I was able to learn in a first-hand manner about their country and history was a very personal manner.  I’ll never forget what it was like to be brought into their homes and given and given an elaborate feast for dinner even though I could barely communicate with them, or the many toasts to friendship and understanding at the banquets with the townspeople, or going into the schools and talking with a group of 4th graders, or meeting with the university students and being able to have complex, educated conversations with young people who are trying so hard to find what is best for their country and themselves.  Additionally, I arrived at the airport on the day we departed knowing only two of the other Dartmouth students on the trip, and came home with a great group of friends that I fully intent to remain in contact with during the years to come.

One feeling about this trip that will remain with me is a sense of accomplishment, of having left something lasting and permanent in a distant place.  We had gone with a very concrete goal- to build the fence as a testament to the Jews who used to inhabit the town and to revive and preserve their memory there.  Leaving Indura and the cemetery that last day, I didn’t know if I would ever be back.  However, the fence there will remain as a physical testament to our trip, and the memories formed in those few days would stay with those of us who returned to the United States as well as those who remained in Belarus. 

Lastly, being Christian myself and coming from a part of the country that does not have a large Jewish population, I would also say that one of the things that I gained on the trip was a better understanding of the Jewish religion, culture and history.  By visiting Jewish sites in Poland and Belarus, as well as through conversations with the Jewish students on the trip, I definitely feel that I came home with a more comprehensive and first-hand knowledge of the Jewish people and I still feel honored that I had the opportunity to participate in program.

 

                                -Kim Pelak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is with great pleasure that I recall and perhaps promote awareness of my recent two-week excursion to Poland and Belarus. Twelve other fellow students and I traveled to Eastern Europe with the concrete, if narrowly defined goal of erecting a fence around a Jewish cemetery in a small and poor town called Indura. Upon our journey’s conclusion, we would realize—with more sentimentality than self-satisfaction—that we had accomplished much more than a feat of material construction.

What I did not anticipate were the unforgettably warm receptions we would be granted in each of the three Belarussian cities we visited, and the strong personal bonds we would forge in only a speck of time. Children, students, mothers and fathers came to our work site voluntarily to help us with what proved to be intense physical labor. They were eager to meet us and to communicate with us, some even with dictionaries hoping to learn new English words, and more still with copies of their addresses carefully penned in English so that we might remain in contact. What surprises me still is that the visceral connection of friendship could be achieved even though I understood no more than two words of Russian. Only with the help of translators could I interact vocally with the community members, and yet I know I touched people and was myself moved by the fervent collision of cultures.

As I was aware of it upon our departure, I had ventured to a foreign place as an enthusiastic tourist, as a friend to my new American cohorts, and as a “cross-cultural service” volunteer in pursuit of a profoundly meaningful endeavor. Almost immediately upon arrival, however, I assumed the sundry modes of student—in that worldly domain of cultural experience, of educator—to those who wanted to learn about me as well as to unsuspecting minds who gained palpable exposure to knowledge of their own land’s history, and of friend—to a whole new batch of warm and receptive companions.

On the grounds of Auschwitz, as the sun reflected an eerie peacefulness throughout thriving expanses of grass, several flush apple trees and breezy green treetops, I was motivated to frustration at the dual sensations of helplessness and consciousness of a now distanced and intangible historic pain. Oddly, only hours later when I was suddenly displaced—as is the fashion on travel-intensive trips of this sort—into the realm of run-down, yet remarkably unperturbed Belarus, I felt completely rejuvenated by a flood of genuine human kindness. The strongest feelings I recall, and those that pervaded the final days of our trip, may be detailed as: not wanting to leave either the friends or the place, and fearing that I would never again experience so powerful a grasp of the human condition as universal. I am neither Jewish, nor Catholic, nor Belarussian, nor even Polish, but I am human. And whether it be on the stained terrain of Auschwitz-Birkenau or the dance floor of a school in Sopotskin, I was reminded only of that undying analogue.

 

                                -Diana Bellonby

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a series of my reflections at various points on the trip.  The words are out of my travel journal, so while they may not be eloquent, they are real and honest:

 

8-28

Death is beyond control—it’s tragic but inevitable.  But who has that right to strip someone of who they are—their family, their home, their dignity, their humanity?  After that, their life is already gone.  This pile of ashes (a muddy, gray-green pool of ashes bordered by the gas chambers and the ruins of the smokestack)—the physical destruction of their bodies—is merely a manifestation of the humans who had already died too many deaths.

 

Auschwitz II was stark and bleak but somehow beautiful in spite of the fact that it is the most horrific place I can imagine . . . The gas chambers and barracks were real and intense but seemed far away from us (in a time sense).  What really hit me the hardest was the display at Auschwitz I of several tons of women’s hair.  That is part of someone’s body—its so connected that the victims seemed so real and close.

 

8-31

We went to services in the surviving synagogue in Grodno. . . We first saw this great, enormous white sanctuary that was ornate and beautiful.  The actual prayer service was held in two tiny rooms and barely a dozen people attended—all but one over the age of 60.  But there were 12 Jews, resisting a world and a history against them, praying to continue their lineage.  The most moving for me was when the chairman of the community said that Indora used to be all Jewish but now the old people don’t discuss that history and the younger generations don’t believe that their village used to be populated by the Jews.  He thanked us for coming across the world to accomplish what those here cannot accomplish, even though they live so close.  It was as if these few living descendants of Belarussian Jews passed onto us the blessings of their ancestors to preserve their memories and their resting places.

 

9-3

We finished the cemetery.  It is so rewarding to look over our work and really see how much we’ve accomplished.  Before it was an overgrown hill filled with haphazardly placed stones, but now we have a clearly demarcated Jewish cemetery with a gorgeous fence and we can read and document the gravestones, now in fairly even rows.  As I said in my toast at the “banquet” earlier, we worked in honor and in memory of the Jewish community of Indura of the past and in cooperation and friendship with the Indura of today.  And they all welcome us back again and truly are proud of what they have and eager to share it with us.  That’s pretty incredible.

 

9-9

Warsaw is a gorgeous city—but it was just so weird to imagine walking for two hours in what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto.  Nothing remained from the streets and buildings where the Nazis forced and held 300,000 Jews until their deaths—I can just get an inkling of the horror of the ghetto by realizing the size first hand.

 

I have made bonds with people on this trip in a whole new way than how I knew them before.  I have had so much fun and shared such an incredible experience, and I feel we are cohesive as a group . . . Each person is so interesting and amazing, and we all came together in our passion for this trip and this project.  I had an incredible time and I’m so proud of what we’ve done.  I learned so much about this part of the world and also about the universality of humanity.  I know I feel a closer, intense connection to Belarus and to the Holocaust, but how that will manifest itself in my life?  I don’t know yet.

 

                                -Haley Peckett

 

 

 

 

 

 

            To put it plainly, Belarus was one of the most valuable experiences of my life.  Nothing I can write will fully capture the power of those fifteen days.  For me this trip had three parts which by the end had interwoven to form an image which will I will never lose.  First was Auschwitz.  I expected to be completely incapable of handling the horror of the camp.  Instead, I found it difficult to grasp the murder and suffering which curse the place.  This scared me because if I, a Jew whose ancestors were murdered on the same ground upon which I stood, could not feel the anger and grief then how easy it will be for the Holocaust to slip into “history,” hidden in the crevices of our minds.  While I anticipated hatred for the Nazis, I left Auschwitz upset primarily with myself. 

            We then traveled to Indura, Belarus to repair the cemetery.  We were received by the few thousand villagers with an explosion of excitement, interest and love.  Monetarily the poorest people I have ever seen, they were the richest in warmth, cultural pride and generosity.  For those 7 days I tasted a hero’s welcome.  While I can recall almost every second of this week right now, I am certain that there were two experiences which I will cherish forever.  The first involved Ivan, Jon and Jon, three of our most devoted helpers and closest Belarusian friends.  The young boys had labored on one enormous gravestone in the back corner of the cemetery for almost an hour and finally hoisted it to an upright position.  They did not congratulate each other, treating their accomplishment as merely that. They instead yelled “Rabbi, Rabbi.  Come quick! What does this Hebrew say?”  These boys, completely alien to Judaism, its people and the Holocaust, wanted to understand.  I stood alone on a hill and watched this unfold.  For that one moment, my fear that people would forget the Holocaust vanished.  It was in Indura, then, that I first touched the emotion which I had groped for at Auschwitz.   

            My second unwavering memory is of our departure from the Grodno University students.  A third person observer could have taken us for a group of lifelong friends finally parting ways.  In fact, our paths had crossed only several days before but in those hours our cultures, ideas and hearts fused into one, making our separation so hard.  As I kissed Alyce good-bye I felt her wet cheek, she was crying.  “Please” she said, “I have nothing to give to you, take this and remember us always.”  She handed me the flower which had decorated her silky brown hair.  The day before Alyce had said that she dreamed of coming to New York and seeing America.  I hope she knew that coming to Belarus was more than a dream for us.  I never thought that two groups of people so ostensibly different and barely able to communicate could use such a short time to form lifelong memories of love and wonder. 

            In addition to Auschwitz and Indura, there was one other aspect upon which the trip revolved:  the American students.  Oftentimes such trip groups splinter, preventing a cohesive friendship.  For us, this was unimaginable.  Welcoming each other with open arms and open minds, we entered Belarus holding hands and left embracing.  There were times for comforting, times for laughing and times for understanding.  Because of our group, each of these was perfect.  In passing each other now back on campus there is an exchange of a smile which shines with everything we experienced together.  I can not express enough my appreciation and love for this group of people.  But I know that I don’t have say it because I know they feel it too. 

            Having returned from Eastern Europe this trip has become only more meaningful for me.  Immediately, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and began Mila 18.  Having seen Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto I can now feel, although I can never truly understand, the pain of those murdered and destroyed by the Nazis and their struggle to remain alive in a world which hated them.  From Auschwitz, entwined with the warmth of the Belarusian people and friendship of our group, I have found deeper appreciation for my own fortune and blessing.  As I remember standing in front of the barbed wire fence enclosing Auschwitz and peering out through a section that had been cut, I see the preciousness of my freedom, something for which people tore themselves apart to regain.  My ancestral, cultural and religious pride has deepened so greatly because of my experience this summer.  And each time I think of our trip I learn something new while my memories will only become more valuable with passing time.  It was truly incredible and I will never ever forget it.  I hope both my Belarusian and American friends understand the inexpressible effect they had on me in those two weeks.  This trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity and must continue to be offered by the Dartmouth Hillel so other students can experience the feelings and cherish the memories that I now do.

                                               

                                -Daniel Ellman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few of us were toiling away on a back section of the fence while some village boys huddled together on the hill, staring at something intently and giggling.  Playful smiles spread across their open, youthful faces.  They were about 8 years old, wore mismatched colorful clothes, and seemed to be the most content children in the world.  While digging a hole, I kept glancing up at them, trying to figure out what they were hiding.  I paused and went to find out what they had.  In his small hands, one of the boys held a tattered, worn Russian-English dictionary.  In broken English he asked me, “Do you have a map?”  I giggled, stopped working, and joined them on the hill.  As I sat on that grassy hill, I looked over the fence we were building to a pasture beyond.  An old woman, wearing a babushka, was herding cattle that were lazily grazing on the green grass.  The sky was the most beautiful I had ever seen: big white clouds dotted a blue sky, free of pollution.  I glanced back at the boys who were desperately trying to communicate with us, and sighed. 

            This felt like home.  In a tiny village thousands of miles and an ocean away from civilization as I knew it, I was at home.  Those brilliant smiles, the eagerness and curiosity of the children, the diligence, dedication, and hospitality of the townspeople—everything around me comforted me and made me feel welcome.

                       

            Our trip was a lesson.  We were both students and teachers; we taught and oh, did we learn.  Just our presence in the village, the mere fact that we had traveled all this way to build a single fence, showed the townspeople the dedication we felt.  The elder villagers were even astonished to find women working alongside men. 

            We had expected to give something on this trip; after all, it was a community service trip.  But I don’t think any of us realized how much we would learn and how much we would be taught, on so many different levels.  After visiting Auschwitz, Jewish quarters, and old synagogues, our work in Indura had such a greater meaning for me.  I could imagine the Jews of Indura being transported to the Grodno synagogue and then shipped to the concentration camps.  While building the fence, I felt as though I was acting on behalf of those who were no longer alive.  And I knew what their absence meant.  The graves I was walking on didn’t feel like strangers’ graves; they felt like my heritage, my ancestry, and my past. 

            The greatest lessons on the trip, though, came not from the dead, but from the living.  The hospitality and openness of the villagers was astounding.  The intense manual labor and time which the villagers gave us was a testament of their compassion and helpfulness.  We truly wouldn’t have been able to build the fence without the support and help of the village.  And what did these individuals have to gain?  Nothing.  It was the openness, simplicity, and happiness of the villagers which most astounded me.

           

            Every now and then I glance up at the subtle reminder around my room and remember.  The framed “shalom” painting I bought at the small celebration of Jewish Culture Day in Warsaw, a place once so full of Jews, now home to a single synagogue and kosher restaurant.  The beautiful drawing of a church which a boy in Indura drew for me is on my wall; the detail and precision with which it was drawn is a testament to the time he must have spent on it.  The list of addresses sits in my top drawer, each line written so clearly and carefully in Russian.  The Taty CD, which the boy I stayed with in Sopotskin gave me, rests in my CD player. 

            Just yesterday I lost a barrette that I purchased in Belarus.  I felt as though I had lost a piece of me, for every moment of the Belarus trip truly helped shape who I am.  I never could have imagined what I was to learn in those two weeks, or how much smiles and outstretched hands would teach me.  And I never knew that someplace so far away could feel so much like home.    

                                               

                                -Lydia Gensheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most fantastic part of Belarus was the people, not os much the people in the cities, as the people of Indura and Sopotskin.  Welcoming us as if we were their own, no bariiers of language or culture could inhibit our connection.  People helping people, people learning from each other, people exchanging stories, wisdom, histories, jokes. Wondering about American culture as much as we wondered about Belarusian culture, the people of Belarus were rich with their perfect happiness, hospitality, and joy for life.  I had come in with a myth-fairytale of Belarus spun by my grandfather over many years of my childhood.  In retrospect, Belarus was an experience unlike anything I could imagine.  The experience of restoring history, revealing and reading names unspoken for fifty years, resurrecting tombstones hidden by the earth and people who strived to ablate their existence, combined to transform the meaning of our work into the broader scope of history.  However, there would never have been such a great impact, we could never have accomplished as much as we were able to without the help of people of Indura and Sopotskin.  In lifting the tombstones, I was struck by the eagerness and motivation of three Induran teenagers: Misha, Vanya, and Ivan.  After raising each massive stone, removing earth and rocks beneath the surface, Misha, Vanya, and Ivan asked to get the Rabbi to read the names, the dates, recognizing that each stone held its own story, its own life and history. Though having little direct connection to the people burried the cementary, Misha, Vanya, and Ivan recognized the importance of raising the tombstones, remembering the departed, and giving the cemetery the respect it deserved.  The teenagers’ motivation galvanized me and pushed me on to raise more stones , to lift harder, to make more of an impact. The experience of building the fence, working within the context of an education on the Holocaust and Jewish culture in Belarus, has left a lasting legacy on how I view history.  Throughout the current lives of current Belarusians, Jews and others alike, I gape at the resilience of the human spirit, as people preservere and sustain themselves on even seemingly most diminutive remnants of the past.   Heritage is the most important link to ourselves and stepping beyond our own heritage, into the lives of others, we can truly understand the importance of preserving this connection to the past.   Finally seeing Belarus, the land my gradfather spoke of until his death, I came to understand myself better.  I’ve realized in Belarus, I have a mirror that reflects not only my ancestry, but the person I’ve grown to be and hope become, hard-working, persevering, proud, respectful of my family, giving and whole-heartedly kind.   Sharing my own personal journey with people with such an intimate connection to the project enriched my experience and made it even more significant and meaningful.  I realize that there are so many other cemetaries that have been left forgotten, some many more lives that can be remembered and given the respect that they so deserve.  An experience of a lifetime that makes an eternal impact. 

 

                                -Vadim Villarroel

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Belarus service project changed my life. That might sound very cliché, but it’s true. It was a trip that was extremely difficult for me to go on (both, financially and in terms of stress that it caused in my family), but it was worth every penny, every second, and every grey hair that it gave my mother. On the last day of the trip when we had our final reflection session, almost every student echoed the thought that the trip in

someway had made them a better person- I could not agree with this more. The Belarus trip changed my life.

            Before I went on the trip I had been hired to work as a legal research assistant at the International Bar Association. I was planning on requesting to research international corporate law. I had sketched an outline of a scholarship essay that I was going to write. In response to the question,“Why are you interested in this internship?,“ I had planned on writing about my interest in international relations and the international economy. When I returned from the trip, I immediately sat down and wrote the answer to the essay question, and it was completely different than what I had outlined. I wrote about my love of Eastern Europe and my connection to the land there. When I start my first day of work at the International Bar Association this winter, I will request to do research regarding establishing a firmer rule of law in former Soviet States, including Belarus. This fall I am taking a class called Moral Psychology. As a term paper, I plan on writing about the moral psychology that allowed the Holocaust to happen. During this winter, I plan on teaching myself how to read and write Russian (I speak it fluently, but cannot read or write), and in the spring I would like to go directly into Russian 3. I am also considering attending the Russian LSA+ in St. Petersburg during the summer after my third year. I have decided to take more Russian language and Russian area studies classes at Dartmouth. My career plans/ academic plans after Dartmouth have changed. I want to do different things with my life because of the Belarus trip. The Belarus trip changed my life.   

            I brought a pebble back from Auschwitz. This pebble that I took sat in the center of Auschwitz, exactly where millions had disembarked from the trains that had brought them to the death camp. When I want to think about what I am doing with my life, where I am going, I hold on to this pebble and roll it between my fingers. When I walk past cemeteries now, I act differently. I took a tour of an old famous cemetery in Edinburgh. Some people were frolicking around, snapping away with their cameras. I couldn‚t do that. The cemetery had a different meaning for me. I thought about the people who were buried in that ground. I thought about the bodies that lay under the soil of Indura and Sopotskin. I think differently now; I act differently now; I am more conscientious of what I do and what I say. The Belarus trip changed my life.

            The memories I have of the trip to Belarus will stay with me forever. I’ll never forget the sound of Rabbi Boraz standing in the center of the Bema in the Grodno synagogue and singing an Eastern European traditional chant. I‚ll never forget the dinners I had with my host families. I’ll never forget how excited the students were to see us, and to be out on the field helping us. I’ll never forget the conversations I had with the Grodno University students. I’ll never forget the feeling I got in my stomach when I stood on the grounds of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, or walked the distance of the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ll never forget the nights I went out clubbing with my fellow volunteers and the bonding that went on within the group. I’ll never forget the Belarus trip because it changed my life.

                       

                                -Alex Gelman

 

 

 

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