DALLAS — Every summer for the last four years, Dallas resident Pete McDowell boards a plane for a journey to Poland.
He doesn’t go there for a traditional vacation, but to help fix the damage of the past.
Starting this week, McDowell will spend two weeks with a group working to repair headstones in Bagnowka, a Jewish cemetery in Bialystok, a city of 300,000 near the border of Belarus.
Nazi soldiers vandalized the cemetery, which has about 30,000 gravesites, during World War II.
“They came in with a battalion of troops and pushed over and damaged as much of the cemetery as they could,” McDowell said.
Some of the stones were taken to be used for sidewalks and barn foundations after the damage was done. The Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Project brings together volunteers from the United States, Germany, Poland and Israel to repair the damage.
In three summers, the group has restored 1,000 headstones, McDowell said, “The guy that is the head of the project (Josh Degen) is a stonemason contractor from the Boston area,” McDowell said. “He and his wife were actually in the cemetery hunting for a gravestone of one of her ancestors, and said, ‘I can fix these things. I know how to do this. I can stand these stones up.’ So, he went back to Boston and talked to a couple of his friends and got a group together. They did a Gofundme page and got some money and got it started.”
McDowell said he found the project while doing genealogical research. He discovered his great-grandparents emigrated from Bialystok in 1890.
“I was doing genealogical research through Jewish genealogy, and they had a special interest group from Bialystok, so I signed up for that,” McDowell said. “I get notices every once in a while about things that are going on, and one day, there was notice that there was a group that was going to be restoring a Jewish cemetery in Bialystok.”
McDowell’s family history and volunteering experience crossed paths to make him a perfect candidate to assist with the effort. For eight years, he’s worked with Polk Cemetery Savers, a group restoring pioneer cemeteries in Polk County.
“I thought, well geez, I can do that. I can help out with that, and I might be able to find out something about my ancestors,” McDowell said.
He sent them an email.
“They kind of asked for my resume, to see what my qualifications were. I described what we are doing here and sent a link to our Facebook page that shows what we’ve been doing,” McDowell said. “About 10 minutes later I got an email back that said yes, you can join the group.”
He was part of the first summer of work and has gone back every year since. McDowell said another volunteer on the project offered to help him look for his relatives in the archives in Bialystok, but he hasn’t had the opportunity yet.
“One of these times I will go and do some genealogical research,” he said.
McDowell said he’ll continue to go to Poland for as long as he can.
“Part of it is that I’m interested in cemeteries, and this is a cemetery in a town where my ancestors came from. They emigrated before the cemetery was started, so I don’t think there’s any of my relatives in it,” McDowell said. “The other part is … my ancestors were Jewish. My dad was Jewish. I feel like it would be the right thing to help straighten these all up.”
For more information about the project, go to bialystokcemeteryrestoration.org.