During the course of one month in 1941, most of the thousands of Jewish residents of Utena, Lithuania, were rounded up by the Nazis, taken into the forest and murdered. Only a few dozen managed to escape.
That episode nearly buried the entire history of the centuries-old town, but through the efforts of the nonprofit MACEVA and volunteers like students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, this history is finally being unearthed. On Jan. 23, the entire eighth-grade class at Heschel filled the gym to translate the Hebrew inscribed on recently uncovered gravestones from Utena.
MACEVA, from the Hebrew word for “gravestone” (matseyva), is an organization that aims to preserve evidence of old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. Grant Gochin, a member of MACEVA’s international advisory board, came upon the idea of restoring these burial grounds when he visited Lithuania a few years ago, interested in his own family’s history.
“I realized that these cemeteries had fallen into complete disrepair, and that if we could read the gravestones, we could gain a small look into the lives of these people and help us honor their memory,” said Gochin, 49, a wealth adviser from Chatsworth.
It quickly became a multinational effort as Gochin got kids here and in Lithuania involved in the restoration and translation project.
“I wanted the students to learn that the Jewish people didn’t just arrive here randomly or disappear abroad without so much as a footprint, but that they came from an immense, majestic history that needs to be understood,” he said.
Efrat Yakobi-Gafni, the middle school Hebrew coordinator at Heschel, saw the project as a way for students to not only use their Hebrew, but to understand Jewish history in a much more personal way.
“They are learning this history in a very real sense, not just from a textbook,” she said. “It imparts an understanding of the destruction of Jewish communities that they cannot fathom just by reading.”
In Lithuania, students went into the forests, located the gravestones, cleaned them, photographed them and uploaded the images onto MACEVA’s Web site. Heschel students then accessed the photos online and used their Hebrew skills to translate the names, dates and descriptions on the stones, which were then posted at litvak-cemetery.info.
Romy Dolgin, a student at Heschel, found that the ability to work hand-in-hand with eighth-graders across the globe was one of the most exciting things about this project.
“Just knowing that right now, kids on the other side of the world are looking at these tombstones, and it’s connecting us to them, is very thrilling,” she said.
“Obviously,” Romy added, “the most important part of this project is to remember and understand that these people whose names are on these gravestones lived there and had real lives, and their families want to be able to trace back to these villages to find out where they came from.”
Gochin said that while the Heschel event was just for one day, their involvement with the project doesn’t need to end.
“The students can remain involved after doing this here. And their parents can as well,” he said. “There are thousands of untranslated gravestones that need to be translated. Hopefully, this will help the next generation understand and appreciate the history.”