Why Volunteer?

Strangers of different nationalities, ages, religions and professional backgrounds come together each summer at the Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery to try to “right a wrong.” Here’s what motivates them.

“I feel a moral obligation to be here. I think a measurement of one’s culture is how you treat old people, how you treat children, and how you treat cemeteries.”

Andrzej Kondej
Poland
Marketing Strategist

”Just the physical work of painting stones is like meditation. Your mind calms down and you can think about everything that surrounds you – about the Jewish culture, about what happened to the people here. I don’t think in our daily lives that we have those moments really often.”

Rebecca Ricker
Germany
Student, ASF

“I really feel at home in Bialystok. I really feel a connection. I try to concentrate on the fact that my family once walked here – and that the people who murdered them no longer are alive. I don’t really expect to find my family’s stones, but I want our work to remind people that 50% percent of this city was once Jewish and it was a very vibrant community.”

Amy Degen
Massachusetts, USA
Holocaust Educator

“It’s very inspiring volunteering with so many people from different cultures. My family history is Polish, French and German. For a long time, the Germans were enemies of the French and the Germans have been enemies with the Poles. When people from different backgrounds get to know each other as people, reconciliation happens. I’m proud to be a part of this.”

Daniel Żamojduk
Germany
Student

“I’m from Jerusalem volunteering with people from Germany and Poland. The most important part for me is to make the connection between our three nations and talk about what happened. Understanding each other’s stories and family histories – and how we each perceive the history of the Holocaust and World War II.”

Ofir Balzilay
Israel
Student (AFS)

“In just one day here, we put 61 stones back where they belonged. And all the stones were in the same area, so it looked like a mini-skyline had popped up where there was nothing before. It’s sort of ironic to say that a cemetery is coming back to life, but in a spiritual way, it is.”

Nathan Shafner
Connecticut, USA
Attorney

“In this cemetery, we see inscriptions in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Old Prussian, German and Polish. Restoring every letter matters. Every letter contributes to the story of the people we are honoring. By re-erecting fallen and vandalized stones, cleaning and painting them, we are adding their names once again to our living memory.”

Heidi Szpek
Washington, USA
Professor Emeritus Central Washington University

“The stones that are no longer here bother me even more than the ones that are here and have been damaged. Removing the stones doesn’t remove the cemetery. My ancestors and many people’s ancestors are still buried here. I can say Kaddish over this whole cemetery, but I sadly can’t say Kaddish over the tombstones of my family.”

Mark Halpern
Pennsylvania, USA
Genealogist

“Everytime we reset a fallen headstone, we’re returning that person to a place of honor. Their family went through the trouble of putting up that monument as a memorial and we’re making sure they are not forgotten. We’ve seen people show up here while we are working and say, ‘Those are my grandparents.’ There’s plenty more work to do.”

Peter McDowell
Oregon, USA
Retired Land Surveyor

“It’s truly a spiritual experience being here. My grandparents came to America from Bialystok, so it’s especially meaningful helping to restore this sacred place. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity.”

Iva Gardner
Pennsylvania, USA
Retired Teacher

“There’s nobody else to do this work unless we do it. It’s time to stop looking the other way. When I’m cleaning a stone, I always try to get a translation and learn a little bit about the person to make a connection. I say a prayer to give them more respect than they have been given here.”

Karen Gannon
Massachusetts, USA
Medical Professional

“You don’t have to be Jewish to care about this place. It’s inspiring to see volunteers from many backgrounds come here to show compassion and restore light and beauty back to the souls who are buried here.”

Alia Degen
Virginia, USA
Implementation Specialist

“I would love this cemetery to become a place where people one day come to take walking tours, to see the beautiful inscriptions on the gravestones, and learn about how Bialystok was once one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe.”

Howard Flagler
Massachusetts, USA
Sales Executive

“Our biggest reward is meeting someone in the cemetery searching for one of their loved ones, and seeing them find a grave that we restored earlier. Nothing in my mind and soul can give me more happiness than reuniting someone with their lost relatives and restoring dignity to their family heritage.”

Josh Degen
Massachusetts, USA
Business Owner

“Righting a Wrong means making things whole again. We all have family. I would hate to think that somebody might come and try to destroy a loved one’s final resting place and pretend that they never existed. We need to fix what was once destroyed by some very cruel people.”

Paula Flagler
Massachusetts, USA
Retired Teacher

“I have family roots here. It’s tough to understand how some people can be cruel enough to destroy a cemetery. I’ve been in towns in Poland where you now can’t find any Jewish stones at all. Bialystok is a place where we have the power to do something, a chance to put some of the broken pieces back together.”

Jan Braunholz
Germany
Filmmaker

“We need to take care of this place. Bialystok used to be a hub for Jewish culture. If we want to fully understand the history of our country and what it means to be Polish, we need to remember the full story, the story of our neighbors who also took part in building this country.”

Jakub Popławski
Academic Researcher (AFS)
Poland

“It’s super important to stand up for people who can no longer stand up for themselves. Volunteering here helps make sure that their memory isn’t lost, that the Jewish community here isn’t forgotten.”

Ali Flagler
New Hampshire, USA
Software Developer

 

Meet Our Volunteers

Dr. Hiedi Spzeck
Translator/ Historian

Washington, USA

Josh and Amy Degen
Chairman & Treasurer

Massachusetts, USA

Alia Degen
Volunteer

Virginia, USA

Howard Flagler
Vice-Chair

Massachusetts, USA

Paula Tye-Flagler
Clerk

Massachusetts, USA

Ali Flagler
Volunteer

New Hampshire, USA

Waldemar Mierzejewski
Site Coordinator/ Procurement

Bialystok, Poland

Daniel Zamodjuk
Volunteer

Germany

Peter McDowell
Volunteer

Washington, USA

Iva Gardner
Volunteer

Massachusetts, USA

Karen Gannon
Volunteer

Massachusetts, USA

Nathan Schafner
Volunteer