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‘Not working on dead stones, but living hearts’

  • Suzanne
They call it a nail in the bridge, because although progress has been made in relations between Jews and Christians, the work of the Foundation for Penance and Reconciliation “falls into insignificance” in closing the huge chasm. This is according to Pastor Kees Sybrandi, spiritual leader of the Foundation.
by SUZANNE BELLLING | Apr 15, 2015

Sybrandi has written a booklet in Hebrew, coinciding with Yom Hashoah. It also has been translated into basic English.

The booklet records 30 years of work by Dutch Christians in restoring and maintaining Jewish cemeteries across the formerly Communist bloc countries and also Western Europe.

Referring to the Holocaust, Sybrandi says: “We mourn the murders that have taken place and weep over the takeover of Jewish possessions and property. We bring before G-d the guilt of these people who called themselves Christians but did not behave in a Christ-like manner.”

The group, along their travels, came across suspicion and hostility from Jews who survived the Holocaust and remained in Eastern Europe and other areas where work on the cemeteries was undertaken.

Then, witnessing the sincerity of the mission of this group, which repaired broken gravestones, cleared up cemeteries and visited the death camps in the course of its work, all the while wearing kippot out of respect for Jewish tradition, the members became known as righteous gentiles and were inscribed in the Golden Book.

“It is wonderful what you are doing here. When you work this way towards reconciliation with the Jewish people, then you are going about it in the right way,” was one response from a Jew who witnessed the Foundation in action.

A comment from a Jew “who barely survived the hell of two concentration camps” was: “I feel deeply touched in my innermost being when I see these people working.” Another comment was: “Oh, I am still broken by the War, but all Jews in the world should hear about this work of yours.”

Key players and devout Christians in the Foundation are Johan and Sofie de Wolf. Johan chairs the work group for the restoration of the cemeteries.

“We stopped farming in Holland in 2004, as we thought Hashem wanted us to serve Him in Hungary or Romania,” Johan told the SA Jewish Report.

“However, after visiting these countries, we did not have confirmation of this or the feeling we were correct. Back in Holland, we became involved in the maintenance work of Boete en Verzoening / Peace and Reconciliation. In the Jewish cemetery in Vught, in the summer of 2005, we were reading Jeremiah from the Tanach and that chapter brought us to Israel for three months.

“These three months opened our eyes and, in 2007, we started as volunteers for Bridges for Peace in Israel.”

The couple remained with Bridges for Peace until 2012 and found themselves working with several South Africans who were part of this Christian pro-Israel organisation.

Although the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation was founded officially in 1979, it really began some years earlier with a prayer walk in Poland, visiting the Jewish cemetery and “knocking on the wall of rejection and hatred that separates us”, according to one Jewish woman, crying out in her initial reluctance.

A year later, the same woman accepted the contact from the Christian group, but the distrust still remained.

The Foundation even visited the synagogue, bearing greetings from other workers and a message of reconciliation, saying they were sorry for what had been done to Jews in the past by Christians filled with enmity towards the Jews.

These initial steps went on to the formation of the official group, founded by Lien Leestemaker and Pieternel and Kees Sybrandi.

Today there are 1 000 people involved in the organisation, which includes a work group which tends to the cemetery restoration once a year.

Johan de Wolf told Jewish Report: “Once one of the rabbis, who visited us in the work week said: ‘I see the work is done without a hidden intention - you are not working on dead stones, but on living hearts’.”

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