"I recently returned from a trip to Belarus, a small country between Poland and Russia. My reason for going was to begin restoration of a Jewish cemetery in the village Sopotskin, where my father had lived as a small boy before coming to the United States. The cemetery has been abandoned since 1941, when the Nazis invaded Sopotskin and removed and killed the Jews living there. Sopotskin, now with a population of about 2000 and absent of all Jews, is a farming community. When we visited the cemetery, we were shocked to discover that what was once an important Jewish cemetery (approximately 3000 graves) is now an abandoned field and cow pasture with a handful of gravestones still standing. The remainder of the stones were toppled over by time; some were used by the German invaders for building pathways behind the still standing administrative building. This building housed Jewish families,packed together, until they were transported to death camps.
The state of breakdown of the cemetery due to abandonment and neglect could only lead to further destruction. It was critical to immediately remove any doubt that this piece of land is a Jewish cemetery. My preliminary plans for this trip (phase I) included the following:
Create an "entrance way" to define the "field" as a Jewish cemetery.
Clear the cemetery of brush, shrubs, etc. as much as possible with the help of local labor.
Find and upright grave stones buried by overgrowth.
Measure the perimeter for the future construction of a fence.
Install markers (Jewish Stars of David) on burial mounds that were without tombstones.
After a week of labor, using local workers, we accomplished our task. Sixty Jewish "stars" were installed and twenty tombstones were "found", up-righted, and secured. Much more remained to be done. I visited a steel foundry located in Grodno, the nearest city, and discussed the construction of a wrought iron fence (approximately 1700 linear feet) to be installed during my next trip (phase II), hopefully next summer. Much of the cemetery still remained to be cleared, and many stones were yet to be found, uncovered, and up-righted.
This experience was exhilarating and exciting from a personal, religious, and historical, perspective. We brought a cemetery back to life, and preserved a part of Jewish identity the Nazis wanted to destroy.
There are many villages in Eastern Europe that contained Jewish communities with cemeteries that also have been neglected. My fear of continued destruction to these cemeteries motivated me to action to try to locate those cemeteries, engage in their restoration, and arrange for continued maintenance. Preservation of each Jewish cemetery means also preservation of Jewish history, Each year we must restore more cemeteries, with the hope that our efforts will be able to expand rapidly. We are truly working against time, but it can be done.
It can be done with the support of concerned people who are willing to provide the financial support necessary to fund these projects.
Goals for the restoration project include the following: The immediate plan is to do on-site visits to Belarus in order to identify the most fragile Jewish cemeteries. This would soon be followed by supervised and structured restorative projects using local labor. As the organization grows, we hope to branch out to other Eastern European countries. We plan to communicate with college campuses to encourage interested students to join us and participate in the restoration process. Perhaps college credit can be given for their personal involvement in the projects.
It is remarkable how many people speak of their own roots in Eastern Europe when we discuss our plans. It is personally rewarding to see that so much enthusiasm has been generated. We can accomplish our goals, but the work cannot be done without your generous contribution. Please help us to remember and to restore honor to the Jews that lost their families in the Holocaust and have no one to keep their names alive. It is our responsibility and the very least we can do for them. Your financial contribution is essential to our success."
Michael Lozman, DDS
Founder of Project Restore.
As of June, 2010, we have restored ten Jewish cemeteries. Hundreds of grave stones have been found, righted, and the cemeteries have been restored to a sacred place of honor and respect.
Because of what we have accomplished, the cemeteries are protected and will remain as an important reminder of the presence and contribution of the Jews in Eastern Europe.
Of great importance is that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be able to return and make that important connection with their roots and their history.
We have taken it as our responsibility to help make this happen. It is our duty and our passion.