Repairing the World
Our work-gloved hands clear away layers of leaf mold, empty vodka bottles, and English ivy. Gradually, a row of headstones emerges. Here are Max Reichenfeld (1870– 1932); Betty Mehrlander (1867–1931); Peter Udolf Lowisohn (1927–1929). Their memorial markers, hidden for decades, are once again revealed to the eyes of the living. This is the mission of the Holocaust Studies Service-Learning Project, a half-credit course at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, where Daniel McQuown (M.Div., 1996) is college chaplain and I am assistant professor of religious studies. For a week in May, we traveled with twenty undergraduates and three other faculty and staff members to Poland.
We began our trip with four days of work at a Jewish cemetery in Wroclaw. Formerly the German city of Breslau, Wroclaw was home to 40,000 Jews prior to World War II. The Holocaust wiped them out. Some went to other countries; most went to the gas chambers. Only about 300 families remain—not enough to maintain their thirty-acre burying ground. Every other year, we come to clear away fallen trees, saplings, trash, and the ivy that covers everything. After only four days, the cemetery feels like home. We are welcomed by its graffiti-covered brick walls and sheltered in its ruined synagogue. Patryk, the nineteen-year-old Jewish caretaker, is our brother. The large World War I memorial, honoring German Jews who gave their lives for a Fatherland that then murdered their families, is our meeting place.
Why do we fly halfway around the world to help restore a neglected cemetery? We do it for the dead: for Max and Betty and little Peter and all the others who can no longer do it for themselves, as well as for their exterminated relatives who can’t do it for them. We do it for the living: for family members who left Germany before the Holocaust, and for the small Jewish community of Wroclaw. As Rabbi Yitzhak Rapoport reminded us, how can you be proud of your cemetery when it looks like a wilderness?
Those of us on the faculty and staff also do it for our students. Many of them had never traveled outside the United States. A few had been to Poland, but none had eaten a kosher meal in a Jewish community center or visited an Orthodox synagogue there. They had learned about the Holocaust in seminars, but working in the overgrown cemetery, touring the empty and decaying synagogues of Wroclaw and Krakow, and conversing with our new Jewish friends led to fresh feelings of horror, outrage, and grief.
On the last day of our trip, we made the inevitable pilgrimage to Auschwitz. By this point, students were personally involved. Here was the killing factory that burned up the families of our cemetery residents, along with a million others from all over Europe. Here were their suitcases, eyeglasses, and artificial limbs. Here was their hair. These dead have no headstones waiting for us to uncover. All we could give them were our tears.
We could also offer our prayers, and most of us did. Albion College has Methodist roots, but our students come from diverse religious traditions. Some are Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Reform Jewish, while others are not religious at all. Although the project does not have a stated spiritual component, it raised spiritual issues. Is there a more profaned yet sacred space than a vandalized, ivy-covered cemetery? Are the dead watching us sweep the debris from their graves? How does the systematic slaughter of two million Polish Jews affect our faith in God? Students could choose to participate in three occasions for religious reflection and prayer: a group discussion in our hostel living room; silent meditation on our last day at the cemetery; and the recitation of Kaddish and Psalm 23 at the ruined gas chambers of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Our experience has changed us. Chaplain McQuown wrote the following on our group blog:
“My prayer for this trip is for all to be motivated by our core mission.... We are facing the most extreme of theological continuums—nearly absolute destruction alongside the vital seeds of hope, faith, and love. I know something important for me has clicked into place spiritually on this trip. From now on, I can no longer simply study and discuss the Holocaust. Now, I have become part of its story and the accompanying story of tikkun olam [repair of the world], healing, and hope.”
I join Daniel in praying that we were able to infuse yet more life into the tiny Jewish community of Wroclaw, still emerging from the ashes of death.
Jocelyn McWhirter (’02D) is assistant professor of religious studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan. To learn more about the Holocaust Studies Service-Learning Project, go to http://www.albion.edu/holocauststudies/.