STEVEN Reece pulls a shield over his face, takes a weed whacker in hand, and begins trimming tall grass in an overgrown, tick-infested Jewish cemetery in western Ukraine where tombstones lie toppled and broken.
And he isn’t even Jewish.
The 63-year-old American says cleaning up old cemeteries is his way, as a Christian, of honouring Holocaust victims while supporting the surviving Jewish communities.
For years now, Reece, an ordained Southern Baptist minister from Texas, has been cleaning Jewish cemeteries and erecting memorial plaques at mass grave sites in Poland and recently Ukraine.
The region — once Europe’s Jewish heartland — saw millions of Jews shot and gassed by Nazi German forces during the Second World War, sometimes with the help of local collaborators.
Reece hopes his mission can help alleviate the bitterness and misunderstanding that still festers sometimes between Christians and Jews.
He explains that he is troubled by the failure of European Christians, who mostly stood by passively as the Nazis marginalised — then persecuted and killed — their Jewish neighbours.
“To me it means simply bringing together people who are separated by distance, by space, by conflict,” he said, taking a break during a clean-up operation in Rohatyn, Ukraine, which before the war was part of Poland.
“I saw the Jewish cemetery as a way to bring Jew and Christian together in a common place where they could work with one another.”
Outside Ukraine, Reece and his team cleaned seven cemeteries in Poland this summer, including one in Oswiecim — the town where Nazi Germany ran the Auschwitz death camp. Reece says he is driven by a desire for justice that has been with him since his boyhood in the American South, where the mistreatment and segregation of black Americans was instituted in law.
“The assassination of Martin Luther King made a tremendous impact upon me,” he said. “And when I encountered the issue of Jewish Polish history, due to what happened here, I saw that there is a great injustice.”
Part of his mission involves encouraging Diaspora Jews to work with local volunteers in Polish towns to continue the cemetery maintenance work.
He wants to help local Jewish authorities struggling to maintain 1,400 cemeteries across Poland — which was once home to the largest Jewish community in the world.
There were 3.3 million Jews on the eve of Germany’s invasion. Now there are just 20,000.