Saturday, May 28, 2016


by: Emma Krummenacher

On Thursday night, we got to do our homestay with families in Stakliskes. I did a week long homestay on a study abroad trip through my high school in France, but we had talked to our families for months before coming to stay with them. For this homestay, we met some of the kids at the cemetery earlier in the week, but we did not know who exactly we would be with. Because of this, I was really worried about the homestay.

After an initial bout of confusion at the school trying to figure out who was staying there, we headed home with our families. Shannon and I stayed with a girl named Lina and her family. Lina spoke English very well and from what I could tell so did her brother and sister, but her parents did not speak any English. I was worried that this language barrier would cause some problems at the homestay, but Lina translated perfectly and everything went smoothly.

When we got to Lina's house, her mom immediately offered us sandwiches and tea. Every member of her family that was at the house at that time pitched in to help make Shannon and I food. I was somewhat surprised by how nice and accommodating they were to us outsiders, but I was even more grateful.

From that point on, the warm hospitality only grew. Lina and her brother, Lukas, took us around Stakliskes and then we went to see their grandmother. She was so sweat. After inviting us into her home, she just kept repeating how beautiful we were. She thought that Shannon and I knew Russian so she kept trying to speak to us in Russian. While we were getting ready to leave, she asked to take a picture with us. I was so touched by how just meeting Shannon and I and taking a picture with us made her so happy. When I think about it, I do not really believe that getting to take a picture with some girls that came from another country would ever make me that happy. It just goes to show how far simple acts of kindness can go.

I was not expecting anything from my host family except for a place to stay. I certainly did not expect to feel the warmth of a family home while I was 4000 miles away from my own. Getting to spend a night at Lina's house was an experience that I would never trade for the world. For me this homestay encompassed a lot of what this trip is about in making lifelong connections with such a wonderful community.


by: Aubrey Meyer 

Today we got to finish up the cemetery, getting it ready for the dedication tomorrow. Seeing all the stones that we got upright was very satisfying, and comparing the pictures beforehand was super exciting. After cleaning the cemetery, we went to the school to have lunch. It was an amazing lunch, and the people making the lunch were so sweet. What really sealed the lunch was when Emmalee bought her and I cinnamon rolls from the cafeteria! They were the most amazing things I have tasted in a week.

We were honored to be able to attend the schools graduation after lunch. It was an emotional moment for some of the seniors who were leaving the school they have been in for 12 years. They sang and danced and even dedicated a song to us and thanked us for coming to see them. We gave the principal a Xavier banner and portfolio, and also announced the art contest winner and the essay contest winner. They were so excited and so thankful that we had done this for them.

Our final event of the day was staying with our host family. Me, Paige and Blessy stayed with the mayor. We went to a little town called Birštonas to have pizza with Mantás, our translator. The mayor drove us around the little town and we went to see a huge oak tree. We also got to see a beautiful lake with a lodge. Seeing all these nature sights made me really appreciate the little bit of nature that I have at home. When we got to the mayors house, his family welcomed us with open arms, even though we didn’t speak their language. Seeing how happy they were to talk to us made me realize that we are pretty blessed in the United States, and how easily we pass by people who have amazing stories and knowledge.

As we continue through these final days, I hope to cherish all the memories we have had here. I hope to expand on all the knowledge that I have gotten to acquire and even grow in the friendships I have made. While we can share these experiences with our family, friends, and peers, nothing will compare to actually being here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fence is up!

by: Greg Reyes

I can’t believe it’s been three days working and restoring the cemetery. In just the past few days the amount of work done from such a resilient team has been unbelievable. With the strong diversity of the team we have all come together with our own strengths to surface buried tomb stones, stand them up right, and clean them off for visitors to read and pay respect to Jewish families who have been laid to rest for hundreds of years. The communication between the students while working together and the passion to give back to a devoted community has been extremely motivational for me. Today was really special because we finished putting up the beautiful iron fence, which surrounds the cemetery. Farms surround the cemetery and without the fence it is very possible that farm animals and even human life could prevent the cemetery from being preserved. While we understand that Lithuanian winters and strong weather patterns the tombstones will not stay upright for tens of years but the iron fence will do justice to what is deserved of the many lives that impacted the surrounding community.

Today was also a big day for a few visitors to stop by and see the service work that the team has put in this week. In the morning the vice-minister of culture, who we met in Vilnius at his office on Friday, visited us and complimented us on the beautiful work we have been doing. He thanked us for the dedication we bring to Lithuania to restore Jewish tradition so that lives will not be forgotten for generations to come. In the afternoon we were honored to have the Israeli Ambassador to Lithuania and his team visit us and talk to us. He first asked us about what we were studying and the expectations we had before coming to visit Lithuania and our expectations we had for him. He shared with us his story before he became appointed and his commitment to hold strong ties between Jewish history in Lithuania and those who live in Israel. I did not know that he was the first Ambassador and that there was not an Israeli Embassy in Lithuania until the beginning of last year. While he was very short and direct with us at the cemetery it was really nice that he came to visit us after at our lodge for a sit down talk over tea and cookies. One thing he said that I really liked was that it is so important, and our duty as humans, to give back to communities around the world who need a hand. Even though most of our team is not Jewish it really doesn’t matter what our faith is because ultimately we all deserve the same respect and dignity especially in a cemetery. It was really nice that he read and translated a tombstone that we cleaned off today in Hebrew. He ended our conversation by thanking us and telling us that any day someone does something to preserve Jewish tradition is a good day. It felt really nice to know that an international government official spent a few hours with us and shared what his efforts are to set an example to Lithuanians to do more to embrace the rich Jewish customs that have influenced Lithuanian culture.

We enjoyed a nice home cooked Lithuanian meal with soup and excellent fish for dinner. Afterward, we all embraced eastern European culture and spent some quality bonding time in the sauna, which felt great to relax and recover from a long day. Tomorrow, I’m really looking forward to continue finishing up restoring the cemetery and in the afternoon meet our host families, which will be hosting the team for one night. It’s crazy how fast the trip has been going and the amount of cultural history I’ve learned that has greatly impacted my understanding of Eastern Europe culture and especially Jewish history. This trip is one I will remember for years to come and I can’t wait to bring the memories and stories back to the United States!

Feeling a Presence

by: Macey Gerster

Throughout this journey, we have been preparing ourselves to begin our work to restore the Jewish cemetery located in Stakliškės, Lithuania.  Now that our work has finally began, I am more eager than ever to make this a place that will honor all of the Jews that once lived here.  Though to some it may seem as if this cemetery is simply a memorial to those who are buried there, it has taken on a much greater meaning.  After learning about the atrocities of the Holocaust that destroyed the lives of so many, this cemetery is not only for those who died before 1940, but for all of their family members who were never given the dignity of a proper burial.  As we work to restore this cemetery that was almost lost forever, I cannot help but feel a presence surrounding us as we work. It is as if these individuals from the past are standing by our side as we work to preserve what is left of their physical memory.  The more we work in the cemetery, the more passionate I become about restoring this resting place to the best of our ability.  Though I know that the cemetery will not be perfect when we leave due to the limited time that we have, I want to make sure that we do the best we can do to bring awareness to the world. I want everyone to know that this cemetery exists and that Jews once lived in the town of Stakliškės, Lithuania.  

Knowing that each grave represented an individual who was unique to the world and there will never be another person like him or her, has inspired me to put my heart into all parts of our work no matter how hard it is.  For example, one tombstone that we found had been buried by dirt that had accumulated over decades.  Though this one tombstone took almost two hours for a group of us to pull out of the ground and get it standing the way that it was meant to, the effort and time was worth it.  The stone belonged to a woman named Rachel, and I believe that she was with us the whole time as we worked to restore the dignity of her grave.  She must have been smiling and cheering as her grave began to look similar to how it had when her children had placed it there in her memory.  Each of these graves deserves this respect, and I hope that our involvement in Stakliškės has inspired the community to continue to watch over these graves in order to preserve them for future generations to see.  By liberating this cemetery from the forest, we are doing what we can to show the world that Jews once lived in Lithuania.  As long as we continue to fuel our labor with the passion that we have for our cause and we use the inspiration given to us from the souls that are surrounding us, I do not doubt that our task can be completed. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


by: Blessy Varughese

Our second day of work is complete! Just in two days of working in the cemetery we have gotten so much done. At least 3/4th of the fence has been put up and a lot of the stones have been put up. It is crazy to believe already that from the first day of seeing the cemetery and now how so much has changed. Majority of the day I was helping out with the fence. We first sanded the part of the fence where the fences were welded together then painted over them and from this I created a bond with the people who were also helping with the fence as well as a lot of teamwork was involved that we were able to figure out a system on how to get this fence done efficiently.

Even though I was not helping upright the stones and clearing them off I still felt like the fence was a very important part of this restoration project. As people drive by the cemetery, the first things they will see are the beautiful black iron fences and just by noticing these fences will show that there is a cemetery there specifically a Jewish cemetery. Also, the fence will help keep trash out. When we first saw the cemetery as we were walking around the perimeter I would see plastic and glass bottles all around as if people were passing by and not even noticing there was even cemetery located there is unbelievable.

During apart of the day I had the chance to help with the stones. From the day before, the students who gave us a tour of their school also joined us today to work in the cemetery was a great experience to work with them in their own community. There was one grave that I worked on that was split in three parts. The stone was extremely heavy and large in size. I could not believe we were able to find the parts of this one stone but being able to see the stone put together was a great feeling especially doing it together with everyone. Although at the end of the day, we completed so much and I am so proud of everyone of their hard work even though we are working in direct sunlight at times or having fire ants crawling up our socks and pants but I am looking forward to completely upright the stones and clean up the rest of the cemetery perimeter.

Restoring History

 by: Sarah Kramer

Our first day doing cemetery work was very accomplishing. We woke up early to cover ourselves in sunscreen and sprayed lots of lots of DEET (strong bug spray). We did not smell pleasant, but we were pumped to start working on the cemetery. When we first got to the site we surprised to see part of the fence up. It was inspiring to see the workers putting forth so much energy to help us help the community.  After getting out of the van everyone broke up into small groups to cover a lot of ground. Some of us carried the fencing to their appropriate places, others collected rocks to put the fences in places, and the rest of team started to uncover hidden tombstones. When uncovering the tombstones we had to be very careful. Many were under leaves, grass, and dirt, so we had to use a long crowbar to tap the surface of the ground to find them. One of the most conflicting tasks was determining how to uncover the tombstones. We wanted them above ground but we did not want to damage the surface either. However, when we got the stones upright and in ground the day became a little brighter. The process was tedious but we all worked as a team to accomplish something bigger than us.

Around noon we got a break for lunch. The local town’s school was generous enough to let us come to their cafeteria to eat our lunches. There we met two students who showed us around their school. They were thrilled to have visitors at their school. Kids would come over and say hi to us. We even have the honor to judge the school’s art contest! One of my favorite moments at the school was when we played outside on their jungle gym. The two students taught us how to play a game called ‘potato.’ It was really fun. The group then decided to show them how to play ‘Knockout.’ The time spent at the school was really interesting. Their school system is different then what we usually expect in the United States. At the school they teach their student three different languages and all of the grades are in one school. As the week goes on I hope to learn more about how their lifestyle is different from ours. Personally, I really enjoy learning more about the community and building relationships between them and the cemetery.

Around 4 pm we started to head back to the lodge. We walked away feeling proud of ourselves; some of us even wanted to keep going. Dirt covered the porch floor and our feet were dark brown, as we took our shoes and socks off. Sweaty heads, dirt from head to toes, and bright smiles, we got back to the lodge feeling proud of ourselves. We had just begun our journey of restoring history. Our efforts are helping those who can no longer help themselves, as well as bringing the community closer to their town’s ancestry. Hopefully the community will continue our work in restoring the cemetery. At the very end of the day we were all pooped-out and went straight to our beds. Oh boy, were we going to feel sore the next day.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Not Forgotten

by: Paige Rimer

On the seventh day of our Lithuanian adventure, we began the day with breakfast before attending a Catholic Mass at the local village church.  The priest gave us a warm welcome as he asked Rabbi Abie to speak to the whole congregation and Ruta translated English to Lithuanian.  Afterward, the priest took a moment to speak with us and gave us all divine mercy medals to commemorate our visit.  I was actually stunned at the priest’s reaction to our attendance to our visit to the church.  Even though we did not speak the same language, I could feel his excitement about our trip and what we were doing on this visit to Lithuania.  It really surprised be how the people of the church were interested in our visit to Lithuania.

Later on, we headed out to a small village called Butrimonys.  There we visited a mass grave that was not far off the main road.  This is where the Jews of Butrimonys were murdered.  The trail leading to the grave was paved with uncut grass and mosquitos, but that discomfort pales in comparison to the walk that those took to their death.  As we walked down the trail, I really tried to put myself in their shoes, but in reality I could not imagine how those people really felt.  After we spent some time at the grave, Rabbi Abie pointed out how one of the pine trees had pinecones that were a bright blood red.  I feel that is nature’s way of explaining how that the blood that was shed there is not forgotten.

Our last stop on our day’s trek was to a Jewish cemetery to specifically view a grave to honor fifty Jewish girls that were murdered at that cemetery.  The story of these girls were essentially forced into a brothel for the officers that occupied the town; it made me think about how scary that situation would be.

The next day we finally got to see the Jewish cemetery in Stakliskes and begin our work there.  The cemetery was a lot larger than I expected it to be, but I was very excited to start working.  The day was very productive and I was very proud of how well everyone worked together to get as much accomplished as possible.  I can’t wait to see the progress that we make this week and how we can make an impact on this community.


by: Shannon Carney

First day of work is now complete! When we arrived to the cemetery this morning, about a quarter of the fence was already welded and looked absolutely incredible.  There was a gate opening into the cemetery that was also already complete signaling that it was a Jewish cemetery with the Star of David on top to the rest of the passer-bys.  The workday began by dividing up into different teams to accomplish different tasks such as fence placement in order to be welded, collecting of rocks around the cemetery to make cement, and digging up and restoring gravestones.  Initially, Macey and I began carrying the fence posts to there positions along the outside of the cemetery. This was definitely hard work and my face turned bright red as a result of this.  The working men, who were doing the welding and cement making, kept asking us if we wanted a break and we simply said not yet.  I’m not sure if it was sheer determination and a can do attitude that enabled us to continue to lift the posts along the border of the cemetery but we were able to complete a decent part of the fens border placement of parts.

After this around 12:30, the team had lunch at the local middle school.  This was quite an experience.  We walked in smelling of bug spray, mud, and honestly a lot of body odor from the first half of the day, but the school really welcomed us with open arms.  The director of the school greeted us with another teacher and two students.  We quickly ate lunch and then we were invited to tour around their school, which was a great opportunity to see different student art work, inspirational quotes throughout the school, and even a small museum resembling the student’s grandparents living conditions.  After this, we were taken outside to play and learn a few games with the students that had led the tour.

In the afternoon, the groups were rotated in order to partake in more aspects of the cemetery restoration process.  Paige, Sarah and I (The Power Puff Girls) were one of the groups doing the gravestone restoration.  Here, we tried to find, outline with a shovel, and lastly usually turn over the gravestones that we found buried under about 2 inches of soil.  There was one grave in particular that we worked very hard to dig up and turn over.  We were each surprised to see how well it was persevered.  At the end of the day, the mayor of Stakliskes even came by to commend our work thus far.

Today was filled with a great deal of teamwork and team bonding via hard work. One aspect that I was reflecting on today was the girl power-ness of the day.  Whether it was carrying the fence posts with Macey and having the workingmen compliment us on our determination or Paige, Sarah and I lifting up massive grave stones with help from a crowbar or shovel I was very proud of the work our group has put in so far and it was only been one day of work.

An Unforgettable Experience

by: Emma Krummenacher

When I came on this trip, I knew we were going to a Catholic mass, but I was expecting it to be just like all of the other masses I have been to; I never thought I would have an experience I would never forget. This morning we had the opportunity to attend a Catholic mass at the church in Aukstadvaris. The service was all in Lithuanian, so I did not really understand what they were saying the entire time. I was able to follow along in the order of the mass because of my Catholic upbringing. While I felt awkward and out of place at first, I quickly realized that religion and worship can unite people even if they are from different parts of the world. This realization helped me feel more comfortable at church today and I am really glad that I was able to see this today.

Before mass Ruta told the priest that we had come to visit today. When mass started, the priest told the congregation about us coming. I heard a word that sounded like America and then most of the congregation glanced back at us. I was worried that the people there would not be very welcoming of us coming into their church. As I watched the eyes turn back towards us, I originally saw this as a confirmation of my preconceptions. Then Ruta leaned over and told Rabbi Abie that the priest wanted him to come up and say something to the congregation. I quickly realized how wrong my original beliefs had been. The whole congregation had been super opening and welcome to us coming in and taking up four pews in their church.

This welcoming spirit was displayed again after mass when a reporter came up to our group and asked Ruta if he could get a picture of us with the priest. I was pretty surprised that a reporter wanted to take our picture. I feel like if a group of Lithuanians or anyone from another country came to mass in the United States people would not be unwelcoming, but they would just be kind of indifferent. That was not the situation here. After we got our picture taken, the priest invited us all into his sacristy. There he gave us all Divine Mercy Medals that he had blessed. After he had handed everyone one metal, he went back around and started handing us more. He was so friendly and opening to all of us. I have never had that close of a conversation with a priest after mass. Even though there was a language barrier and Ruta had to translate for both sides, the conversation seemed to flow almost effortlessly. Everyone was smiling and laughing which made the mood in the room feel so light and peaceful.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Our History is Our Future

by: Sarah Kramer

On Friday, the group toured Vilnius all day. Accompanied by Ruta, our guide and translator, we learned about the Jewish ghettos and history. Ruta pointed out ghetto boundaries and mentioned the requirements for establishing a ghetto—such as a Jewish ghetto cannot be built if there is a non-Jewish resident or building is there. We then made our way down to see the Vice Minister of Culture, where we learned about the future goals and projects in conserving the history of the Jewish people during WWII. At the meeting, one girl asked whether the citizens were behind the projects—as in they believed this history should be restored and documented. In response, from my interpretation, it sounded like the Lithuanian people do not question their government; they do as they are told and are almost unaware of what their “tax” money goes to. Several of us were taken back by this answer. In the United States, we question our government and are entitled to know what they do with our tax money. And if we disagree with anything we voice our opinions. However, the conservation and preservation of the culture of the Jewish society—before, during, and after WWII, is crucial. Our history is our future (take it how you want it).

Continuing our tour, we were walking down a one lane street, Jewish Street it is called, and smelled fresh baked goods. There we stopped for a little bit and treated ourselves to an array of delicious cookies. Along the street there were high-end, tourist shops and a small, kid-friendly park. Without a second thought you would not believe the discrimination and poverty that had once filled the Jewish Street. Before the classy stores had existed, the buildings were homes and before the sweet, warm smell of pastries there was the smell of death and garbage.  We are sheltered from the truth and have become naïve to the injustice that once walked the very path others have happily shopped around.
Within the same day, we had a Shabbat Dinner. Here, we were introduced to several people, who have aided in the cemetery reconstruction projects. They were ecstatic to meet us, as much as we were to see them. They seemed fascinated by our country, which shocked me as I perceived it differently. From their perspective, the group was a representation of the United States. Which is crazy to think, because we are just average young adults that simply live there. We do not have the same authority as a government official or the President, yet they are honored that we are in their country. But in reality, we were honored to be in their country and learning about their culture. And the more we meet the community the more we get to understand the history.

Visiting the Embassy

by: Aubrey Meyer

Today we got to do some incredible things. We got to go meet with the Vice Minister of Culture here in Vilnius. He talked about some of the new projects that he is doing, including a project called YIVO. This project is trying to promote the establishment of Jews in Vilnius. After meeting him, we walked and saw some beautiful synagogues and churches on our way to the United States Embassy. Once we got to the Embassy, we checked in (no phones allowed!) and went to meet some of the officers.

Meeting with the United States Embassy directors was a huge honor. They told us a lot about what they do, how they got to where they are today, and some of the difficulties being a foreign service officer. Each person we talked to (3 of them) had a different story and never really saw themselves getting into Foreign Service when they were younger.

Everyone asked tons of questions like what was the health care system like, what was the family life like, and also personal questions as well. I asked one of the officers a specific question about the Peace Corps. He participated in the Peace Corp right when he got out of college (with a finance and business undergraduate degree), which can really relate to what I want to do. I also got to personally talk to him afterwards to ask about his experience and what areas I should go into in the peace corp. One of the officers also talked about his family life and how adapting was difficult for his daughters. Something that was really hard for his daughters was getting the question of “where are you from” because moving around for different assignments never gave them a steady place to say where they were from.

Being able to talk to people with such high value was such a gift to us and I know we all really appreciated their time. These officers were so impressed by the work we are about to do that the ambassador wrote a letter to Father Graham about how special we are for doing this job, and how honored she was to have us there. Even the Vice Minister of Culture was so honored to have us there.

Meeting such important people really opened my eyes as to how lucky we are to have great opportunities and be able to express ourselves. This puts things into perspectives in viewing the things that have happened in the Holocaust, that our problems are not even close to the things that happened to those people. Hopefully I will be able to take this experience and apply it to my everyday life when we get back to the States.