By Chris Lisinski
GROTON -- Amy Degen went to Poland last August for a professional forum about Holocaust education. She spent time in Warsaw and Krakow, discussing the importance of remembrance all these years later.
Little did she know she would be back in Poland a year later with her husband, Josh, lending their help to restore a dilapidated Jewish cemetery in Bialystok decades after murder and diaspora wiped out most of the city's Jewish population, including her ancestors.
Next month, Amy and Josh, a landscaping contractor and member of Groton's Board of Selectmen, will travel to Bialystok, Poland, alongside friends from Westford and a group of volunteers to work in the Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery for a week.
"At least we can restore some dignity," Josh said. "It gives a sense of satisfaction to pay it forward."
Amy works for Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that promotes education about racism, prejudice and genocide, particularly those that have an anti-Semitic tilt. In August 2015, she was one of more than a dozen educators invited to Poland by the Forum for Dialogue for a seminar discussing Polish-Jewish relations and the lasting specter of World War II on the country.
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At the end of the forum, Amy decided to add an extra week to her trip. She knew she had family members that were murdered in Bialystok during the German occupation, and she wanted to connect with their legacy. So Josh flew in to meet her in Krakow, and the two rented a car and drove to Bialystok in the country's northeast.
During an interview, Amy shows an old black-and-white picture of five people, posing for a family portrait. Her maternal great-grandparents, Fane and Nachman Neifach, sit in the back row, Neifach neatly wearing a shirt and tie. In the front, her great-uncle Gabriel Neifach, his wife, Leytse, and Amy's great-aunt Gitel contort to fit in the frame, all wearing hints of smiles.
Amy is holding a picture of ghosts. Fane and Nachman died in the Great Synagogue Fire in 1941, she said, when Nazis loaded about 2,000 Jews into the synagogue and lit it ablaze. Gitel died during the city's ghetto uprising, when a group of Jewish residents launched a revolt against the German occupiers. Gabriel and Leytse were sent to the Treblinka concentration camp, where estimates say 700,000 to 925,000 Jews were killed.
Their trip to Bialystok coincided with an annual memorial to honor the 1943 ghetto uprising, in which Amy's great-aunt Gitel was killed. That ceremony began at the site of the Great Synagogue Fire, so Amy had a strong connection.
"I put my (family's) picture at both memorials," she said. "I was really the only person there that had relatives that were affected."
Despite those ceremonies, Bialystok's Jewish population never recovered from the devastation of the Holocaust. The Bagnowka cemetery -- which is in serious disrepair -- is the city's only remaining Jewish burial ground; a previous one lies under the central park and another was paved to become a parking lot, according to Heidi Szpek, a professor emerita of religious studies at Central Washington University (and a member of the restoration projects at Bagnowka).
Bialystok, Szpek said, is like much of Eastern Europe in that it has Jewish cultural festivals and memorials, but very few Jewish people.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Bialystok had close to 50,000 Jewish residents, Szpek said. The scholar Joshua Zimmerman, citing an 1897 Russian census, put Jews as 63 percent of the city's total population at that time. They played an important social and economic role and led many of Bialystok's institutions and businesses.
But soon after the Holocaust, the number of Jewish residents had plunged to 900. Many of those who survived then fled, and a "mini-pogrom" in 1968 scared away even more, according to Szpek. Now, although there may be a handful of others behind the scenes, there is only one "active and vocal" Jewish resident in Bialystok: Lucy Lisowka.
"She is the last Jew of Bialystok," Szpek said.
The Degens did not get the full spark of inspiration for their project until they met Lisowka. She advocates for the preservation of Jewish sites; she gives tours to Jewish visitors; and around 2007, she began efforts to repair the Bagnowka cemetery.
At one point, the cemetery had about 30,000 tombstones, but over the years, so many have been stolen that only about 3,000 remain. Those still there are often vandalized, broken or allowed to fall over and sink into the underbrush.
"Tombstones were taken away and used -- this isn't unique to Bialystok -- they were used to pave roads and line latrines and buildings," Szpek said. "They were taken and used sometimes for Christian burials. They took the backside of the tombstone and used them that way. You see the double horror of trying to annihilate the Jewish people and also trying to destroy their heritage."
Volunteers frequently come to Bialystok to help Lisowka's efforts, but still, about 60 percent of the cemetery needs to be restored, in Szpek's estimate.
"For Jewish history, this area was incredible for its business industry, its theater, its culture, so to preserve this cemetery, it honors the legacy of what was created," she said.
And Josh, with his landscaper's eye, immediately noticed something while visiting the site: the volunteers were lifting and resetting the stones with a tripod at an estimated rate of two per day. But with the right equipment and workflow, Josh thinks he could do much more.
"He just saw these people working with 19th-century methods," said Westford's Howie Flagler, vice president of the Temple Beth El Cemetery Corporation in Lowell and longtime friend of the Degens who will also travel to Bialystok. "Their effort was so pure, but their effort was not efficient. The idea was that if he could go back in with the right crew and the right equipment, we could get so much more reclaimed."
So they made a pact: this August, they will return to Bialystok for a week and will use more specialized techniques to contribute to the cemetery's restoration. They plan to purchase hand tools and leave them there as well as rent the big equipment for five or six 10-hour days of work.
That idea is not cheap, so in January, they launched a GoFundMe to raise money. As of this week, they have raised about $6,500 of their $10,000 goal with less than a month to go until the trip.
"Our intent was never to come back the next year. It just sort of fell into our laps," Amy said. "Heidi and Lucy are thrilled because they had been going at such a snail's pace."
On his cell phone, Josh pulls up pictures of tools and maps of the cemetery while firing off ideas -- he'll scrape enough soil to put the headstones into the ground and lower them via a sling attached to a mini-excavator -- but those depend on the various volunteers already in Poland digging up and cleaning enough stones before Josh arrives.
"If we meet our goal and we have enough stones, I think I can do 100 per day," he said. "If we can't, we'll get done as many as we can."
That would not completely finish the project -- what remains of the cemetery is simply too big -- but the team hopes to make a significant dent and perhaps set a precedent to return the following year.
Szpek's expertise is part of the restoration, as well. Her knowledge of the cemetery and her ability to translate Hebrew help ensure that headstones go back in the correct places.
"In Jewish tradition, the tombstone isn't just some random marker," she said. "It's also seen as the place where the soul is anchored to the body until the end of time. If you start placing wrong tombstones with wrong people, think about the religious implications of what you're doing."
For the project's Massachusetts contingent, donating their time to this project is a way to connect with and honor something larger.
Those interested in donating can do so on gofundme.com.
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