A town that was once home to little more than 3,000 Jews in prewar Russia now has its shtetl’s cemetery back.
Celia Siegerman Denov contemplates the new monument she helped erect at the Sharashova cemetery [Robert Bell photo]
Thanks to the efforts of Toronto couple Celia Siegerman Denov and Robert Bell, the Jewish descendants of families from Sharashova, Belarus, now have a physical reminder of what was once the town’s Jewish minority.
Siegerman Denov, a retired social worker, told The CJN her father and his family immigrated to Canada from Sharashova in 1905.
The restoration of the cemetery was officially completed in September 2007 at a ceremony that was attended by Sharashovans, local politicians and dignitaries.
Siegerman Denov first became interested in restoring the cemetery after a cousin, who was working in Moscow in 1990, visited Sharashova in the early days of glasnost – when Russia opened up for renewed tourism – and discovered there were still some Jews living in the town.
At the time, she said, “the cemetery had been completely abandoned and was in very poor condition. In fact, it was so overgrown the [headstones] had fallen into the ground.”
But it was still not as desecrated as other Jewish cemeteries of the region had been, she said.
Siegerman Denov visited her ancestral home for the first time in 2000, while on a trip with her cousins.
“When I first got to the cemetery area, I couldn’t find it. I was actually standing on it, but cows were grazing on it,” she said.
On a return visit in 2005, Siegerman Denov had the good fortune to befriend Franklin Swartz, an American Jew living in Minsk, Belarus, who also happened to be the executive director of Voluntas: The East European Jewish Heritage Project – a charity that negotiates with the Belarus government to allow Jewish cemeteries to be listed as protected historic sites.
According to Siegerman Denov, Swartz quickly became an essential guide and interpreter and helped to obtain permits for the eventual restoration.
She also acknowledged the help and guidance of Michael Lozman, head of the charitable Eastern European Jewish Cemeteries Project Inc. in Albany, N.Y. (www.restorejcem.org), who also travelled to Sharashova with her.
The project, funded by the United Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, collects contributions from the community to help “restore cemeteries… destroyed by the Nazis.”
However, the cost of restoring the cemetery proved prohibitive until recently, when the Siegerman family was able to put nearly $20,000 together to privately finance the construction of a new metal gate and perimeter fence – about 1,500 metres long – and the erection of a cenotaph commemorating the Jews buried there and those lost to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Its inscription reads: “In loving memory of the once vibrant Jewish community, with fervent hopes for a peaceful and just world for all. In memory of those who were deported to Auschwitz January 30 – February 2, 1943.”
Though Bell and Siegerman Denov had to run all their wording and construction plans by a municipal “ideology monitor,” they managed to get the work done by enlisting the help of the local townspeople.
Bell noted that Sharashova is still a small village in which many buildings are still without modern plumbing and people continue to use outhouses as the norm.
As such, the townsfolk relied on horse-drawn carriages to transport segments of the new fence to and fro and used scythes to clear the cemetery grounds of weeds.
“The local authorities advised us against using wood for the fence,” Siegerman Denov said. “Because it could be taken down and used for fuel.”
While on the trip, Lozman arranged for Siegerman Denov and Bell to meet with local high school students to talk about the Jewish community of Sharashova and ask them to write essays about what they knew of the Jews and the Holocaust.
“The elders in the village remember what happened to the Jews,” Siegerman Denov said. “One boy wrote that his grandparents remembered the Jews. But the Jewish community was a bit of a mystery to them.”
Still, when the cemetery was finally re-opened in early September, Siegerman Denov said she witnessed many of the town elders paying their respects and crying in front of the newly erected monument.
“Locals spoke and thanked us for doing this,” Bell said. “Everyone in the village seemed happy we were there. Not just for giving them work, but for doing the right thing after all these years.”
Bell noted that there wasn’t time to raise all the headstones, and Siegerman Denov said she plans to return to Sharashova in the future to complete the work and add a Hebrew inscription to the cemetery’s monument.
She called the endeavour “one of the most fulfilling and moving things I have done in my life.”
Siegerman Denov and Bell also urged others wishing to restore cemeteries in eastern Europe to contact Lozman and Swartz, and to do so soon.
“There are so many abandoned Jewish cemeteries in eastern Europe. The time is right now, as governments are open to protecting [them] and urban development is imminent.”
For more information, contact [email protected].