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To Honor and Preserve

Dartmouth students honor Ukrainian Holocaust victims

For two weeks in June, a group of Dartmouth students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from as far away as Mauritius and Nepal, traveled to the tiny, rural Ukrainian village of Zhuravnicki to take part in the fifth iteration of Project Preservation, a program created to honor and memorialize the European Jews lost to the Holocaust. In past years, Project Preservation has taken the form of restoring Jewish cemeteries abandoned by towns with no living Jews. This year, the group of 15 students, led by Rabbi Edward Boraz and Aine Donovan, executive director of Dartmouth's Ethics Institute, restored an abandoned Jewish cemetery and erected a memorial to honor and consecrate an unmarked mass grave where hundreds of Jews were murdered and buried by Nazis in September 1942.

Dartmouth students erect a fence around an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Druzhkopol, Belarus in June. (Photoby Meredith Raucher '06)

This year, the group was accompanied by Gary Gershfield, the principal sponsor of the trip and the great-grandson of one of the Druzhkopol victims. His great-grandfather and roughly 1,000 other Jews populated the town of Druzhkopol, which coexisted with the neighboring gentile town Zhuravnicki until Druzhkopol was wiped out during World War II.

Boraz led the group first to Poland, where it visited the former concentrations camps Birkenau and Auschwitz. Project Preservation trips have always begun with a visit to these camps.

"Seeing the camps brings a sense of the enormity of the loss, and the overpowering statement of genocide in all its horror," says Boraz. "Such an experience can bring about a state of helplessness and defeat to which the cemetery restoration is a response. To come into the cemetery can have a cathartic and cleansing effect."

In Zhuravnicki, home to just over 1,000 people, the project members successfully unearthed the buried but surviving gravestones from the long-abandoned Jewish cemetery, which had been destroyed during the war. Although many of the original gravestones were torn down and used as paving stones by the Nazis, Project Preservation members were able to excavate and reset 24 surviving headstones, their Hebrew inscriptions still legible. The group also enclosed a stone monument honoring the massacre victims and both sites were commemorated in a dedication ceremony at the end of the group's stay.

Students who take part in Project Preservation prepare for the trip by taking a course on genocide during the spring term. Donovan, who co-taught the course this year, describes the project as the ideal melding of experiential and classroom learning. "All spring term we read Elie Wiesel, Peter Levy—going to Ukraine tied together the head part and the heart part. Students went from a rational understanding of the Holocaust in the classroom to standing in a beautiful field and realizing how many people died at the hands of the Nazis. As a teacher, it was one of the most profound experiences of my career," she says.


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Last Updated: 12/17/08