25/05/2011 § Leave a comment

Preserving the Past, Saving the Future

Now, more than ever, Jewish heritage and the Jewish future is under threat in East Europe.  This time the threat is not anti-Semitism per se but memory.  The sites of the rich Jewish Heritage which once abundantly marked the landscape of East Europe have now fallen into dilapidation  and disrepair.  Many cemeteries, those great repositories of history and genealogical information are in a state of abandonment due to the destruction of Jewish communities during the Holocaust and Soviet government hostility afterwards.  They are unlikely to endure for the next generation.  They will be lost forever. With them will be lost a vital part of our history and the history of Europe.

We have an obligation to our children and the youth of Europe to not only preserve the past but also to protect the future by using these valuable sites as an opportunity for education.  It is not enough to rail against the perpetrators of past atrocities and those who today still wish to deny or perpetuate those crimes.  It is now time to educate the new generation of East Europeans.

During the Soviet period the Holocaust was not taught in schools nor acknowledged as a crime targeted against the Jews and other religious, ethnic and social groups. It is small wonder that there is much opportunity for misunderstanding, misrepresentation and denial.    At the same the Holocaust has cut our community off from a fuller knowledge of life before the war. Lithuania was, after all, once called the Jerusalem of Europe where Jewish culture and thought was deeply rooted.  If we turn away from our East European past we deny our children the knowledge they need, the knowledge of their ancestors and the knowledge of a past of which they can be proud.

The Lithuanian Jewish Heritage Project’s  Cemetery Restoration  Initiative brings students  from North America and West Europe together with youths from East Europe to restore Jewish cemeteries and synagogues thus preserving the past and saving the future.

Before, during and after the restorations local students’ awareness and knowledge of Jewish and local heritage is reinforced.  Pre-restoration activities include the students researching the multicultural and inter-faith history of their area. This is combined with the Holocaust Education Curriculum for public schools recently instituted by United States Embassy in Lithuania in cooperation with the Lithuanian Ministry of Education.  Students have written assignments and participate in essay competitions about their town’s  interfaith history and the Holocaust.  They assist in mapping and indexing the cemetery, the planting of a herbaceous and arboreal boundary, the recovery, cleaning and resetting of fallen headstones, landscaping and erecting a commemorative monument.  The hands-on experience reinforces the academic elements of the work. Annual upkeep of the cemetery by local residents extends community involvement over the years.

Interaction with foreign students is a primary element in promoting understanding of the value of different backgrounds. It allows exposure to a diversity of perspectives and experiences, giving both groups an appreciation of each other’s culture.  Contact is established well before the arrival of students from abroad and, in our experience, continues well afterwards, both socially and academically, with such activities as the creation and maintenance of a website about the town’s inter-cultural history and its cemetery.

The Lithuanian Jewish Heritage Project’s  Cemetery Restoration  Initiative is based on 11 years of experience in Belarus where have been restored in villages across the country. Universities such as Dartmouth, Binghamton and Sienna Colleges (a Franciscan institution) have taken part.

Extension of the project into Lithuania has been met with enthusiastic cooperation from local and national government and the Lithuanian Embassy in the United States. The Lithuanian Ambassador to United States, Zygimantas Pavilionis, has called this effort, “the sacred project.”   This year we intend to restore the cemetery in the town of Ratnycios in Druskininskai District.


We are eager to encourage people to participate directly in each restoration either as individuals or as a group. This can be done by working on the site, recruiting others to participate or by providing financial support.

Finance for the project is derived from private donors and from participating foreign institutions and overseas students. Local government and community members usually provide supplementary labour.  Each restoration costs approximately $10,000(USD).  Donations to this project will be acknowledged by a plaque on the memorial erected on the site.  If there are any sites in which you have an interest we will be pleased to provide information about them.  Donations are deductible  processed by our parent organisation the East European Jewish Heritage Project, a 501(c)3 registered organisation.

For more information please contact Franklin James Swartz [fjs@eejhp.org]

© EEJHP 2011

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