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New York orthodontist's organization takes students to Europe to restore Jewish cemeteries

January 20, 2015

By Jean Williams

In tribute: Dr. Lozman stands aside a monument that he had erected in Grosovo, Belarus, commemorating the burial site of 300 Jews, most of them children, that the Nazis massacred and buried in the forest.
Latham, N.Y
. — In 2001, Dr. Michael Lozman began a life-affirming mission: resurrecting abandoned Jewish cemeteries.

The New York orthodontist had taken a trip to Eastern Europe to visit his father's roots in Sopotskin, Belarus, a small agrarian village. The Nazis depleted Sopotskin of Jews during the Holocaust, leaving no one to care for the gravesites of the Jews who once lived there.

"When they showed us the cemetery, I was appalled by what I had seen," said Dr. Lozman. "I have learned that in almost all of the villages in Eastern Europe, the Jewish cemeteries were usually on the outskirts of the village, and because of the Holocaust and the Jews obviously not returning back to their villages over the years, many of these cemeteries have deteriorated — turned into garbage pits and places for cows and horses to graze. Most of them have been destroyed. The ones that were not destroyed by the Nazis when they invaded, over time, found their destruction by the forces of nature.

"So many of the Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe are on their way toward destruction and having family in this particular cemetery, it inspired me to want to come back to do a restoration."

Reclaiming space: Students lay the parts of a fence along the perimeter of a cemetery prior to digging holes for installation.
Dr. Lozman returned to America charged with the notion of changing the fate of the Sopotskin cemetery. Two weeks later, he was back in Sopotskin and, using local laborers, undertook the arduous process of renovating the cemetery. This first project inspired him to save as many of the neglected cemeteries as possible. With a new charge, Dr. Lozman sought a way to expand the idea into more than a restoration project. He sought to turn it into an educational opportunity for college students.

He approached officials at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, about establishing a program whereby students could accompany him on a subsequent visit to Belarus. A formal program solidified and today it all takes place under the auspices of Restoration of Eastern European Cemeteries, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization that Dr. Lozman established. Aside from Dartmouth, participating schools have included Binghamton University of Binghamton, New York, Siena College of Albany, New York, and Union College of Schenectady, New York.

Making it clear: A student participant helps to clean up more than 70 years of brush and debris at the start of the restoration project.
For the students, the process involves a host of activities from fundraising to physical labor. "When we arrive in the country where we're going to do the restoration, the students dig the holes; mix the cement; and install an iron fence," Dr. Lozman said. "After that, we do a general cleanup of the cemetery. We remove 70 years of debris, and we look for gravestones that have been buried and we upright them. We archive photos of the names and gravestones to make this information available for Jews all over the world."

Aside from raising funds for travel and the physical labor, the student program also involves studying and learning about the Holocaust (including visiting Auschwitz concentration camp), meeting survivors, spending at least a night with local families in the village where the restoration takes place and a final dedication ceremony to which the entire village is invited.

Ten of the restorations so far have been in Belarus and three have been in Lithuania. This summer, Dr. Lozman will embark on his 14th restoration journey, his third to Lithuania with Union College.

A stand-up job: Students install an iron fence in holes prior to placing cement at a cemetery as part of Restoration of Eastern European Cemeteries, Inc.
Dr. Lozman orders a custom wrought iron fence, made of 9-foot panels and bearing the Star of David, that he and the students erect for each cemetery as part of the restorations.  "I select those cemeteries that are in the worst possible condition — cemeteries that have no fencing around them, no markings, because they are the ones that are nearest to complete destruction," Dr. Lozman said.

Although Dr. Lozman's activities are dedicated to the restoration of Jewish cemeteries, he also is responsible for the installation of a memorial at a massacre site in Grosovo, Belarus. He learned that almost 300 Jews were marched into the forest and then killed and buried. The town's mayor provided the victims' names and ages, and Dr. Lozman had a monument inscribed with their names and erected at the site. "Horrifically, 75 percent of those killed were under the age of 17 and several were under the age of four," Dr. Lozman said.

Righting the past: Dr. Michael Lozman (front) works with U.S. college students who aid in his effort to restore Eastern European Jewish cemeteries.
One of the biggest challenges to keeping Restoration of Eastern European Cemeteries, Inc., growing is funding, said Dr. Lozman, who volunteers his time and services. He has accompanied students on every trip abroad so far and participates in the reconstruction.

"It's more than a labor of love," Dr. Lozman said. "The importance of all this is that when we are finished, we've done something of value, of significance — that we've had an opportunity to make a change. What else can you do for the victims of the Holocaust other than to try to preserve their family names, their family resting places — something that they were unable to do because they were killed?"

He said that the students who participate come from diverse religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds. "This is not necessarily a Jewish thing," he said. "This is a human thing. We are doing this because we are civilized people, and because we want to undo part of this atrocity and give respect to the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Everyone in the world should visit Auschwitz to learn what we're capable of doing and what we have to be on guard against."

For more information about Restoration of Eastern European Cemeteries, Inc., contact Dr. Lozman at 17 Johnson Road, Latham, N.Y., 12110, or email at mlozman@aol.com.