Amy Degen: ‘The World Needs So Much Help - That’s What Drives Me’
by Barbara Scofidio
Anyone who thinks of Amy Degen as Josh’s wife does not know Amy Degen. She might be married to the former member of the Groton Select Board, but she could write a book on her life—one of philanthropy, education and connection.
Amy’s story is one of amazing coincidences, all leading her to the people she needs to connect with to do good work. In fact, perhaps they are not coincidences at all.
“The world needs so much help, and that’s what drives me,” she says, referring to her Reform Jewish background and the concept of tikkun olam—the repair of our world. “I need to help in any way I can. I’ve always been the behind-the-scenes person. I don’t need my name in lights. If I know I’m doing good, that’s what warms my heart.”
Right now, that means collecting homemade hats, gloves, mittens and scarves to send to Ukraine. She’s already sent one package and is about to send more. A partner in Poland is risking his life to run them across the border and into the country.
The project taking up most of her time is the restoration of a Jewish cemetery in Bialystok, the largest city in northeastern Poland. “I always knew that my family died in the Holocaust and I always wanted to do something related to that, but could never figure out what it was.” In 2005, her synagogue, Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford, asked her if she wanted to be trained to teach about the Holocaust by an organization called Facing History. “They knew I was into genealogy and had this connection. It was life-changing.”
She started teaching at other synagogues as well, and then was asked in 2015 if she wanted to apply to go to Poland to meet with a group called the Forum for Dialogue, an organization engaging in Polish/Jewish dialogue that hosts educators from around the world. “The Poles suffered terribly in the Holocaust. Many were moved around, many were killed, and they want other people to hear their perspective.”
She decided to rent a car when the program was over and drive to Bialystok, where her family was from, and Josh joined her. In 1941, half the city’s 150,000 residents were Jewish—now there is only one person left. That’s when she discovered the Jewish cemetery that she and her husband and a group of volunteers would work to restore for years to come.
There were many Jewish cemeteries in Bialystok, but after the war, the Communists stole the tombstones and sold them to the local people, who used them for their foundations and construction. In this one, she recalls, “All the stones were down, they were covered with debris from 70 years ago, and there was this group of people manually lifting the stones and washing them and painting them. And Josh said, ‘I could come in here with an excavator and do 50 in a day. We’re going to come back next year with volunteers and we’re going to do this.” They have been back several times since, started the nonprofit Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Fund and created a GoFundMe site.
“When we first went there, we were just trying to beautify it and have evidence for people that the Jews had lived there. What ended up happening is that it became this incredible database, so I have people contacting me on a weekly basis trying to find their family members. Families have been reunited.”
It was friends in Bialystok that led her to the man who is helping to deliver the hats and gloves to Ukraine. “It’s just a little something I can do. These people have their heat shut off,” she said. “These are the kinds of things that kind of fall into my lap.”
This has been how Amy has lived her entire life—helping others and forging connections. During college, she and her friends got a pickup truck and started taking people’s piles of newspapers to the transfer station, long before there was recycling. In her last semester, she worked as a tenant and community organizer in Mission Hill, then spent a year doing that after graduation. She then went on to earn her graduate degree in City Planning from Cornell University and worked for nonprofits doing affordable housing in communities including Roxbury and Chinatown.
She left to raise her two daughters and help her husband with the back-office part of his business, Earthscape, Inc., began volunteering in the schools and at her synagogue, and became Co-President of her Hadassah chapter. She started bringing educational movies to Groton through her volunteering with the Groton Interfaith Council (of which she is the former Co-President), among them a program that showed the documentary The Sturgeon Queens: Russ and Daughters, and served food from the lox and herring emporium on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that they had shipped up for the occasion.
She assisted Groton-Dunstable Middle School teacher Niki Rockwell with Groton Dunstable’s Million Penny Project, which honors the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. Rockwell’s homeroom began collecting one million pennies to help them understand how much a million is, and after two-and-a-half years, dedicated the memorial in May of 2008. After seeing the movie Paper Clips in Boston, she brought the documentary to Groton, and invited the filmmaker, Joe Fab, to speak to the Pennies Club.
“It’s all connections,” she says. “I keep looking at the sky and saying, ‘Who’s running my life?’ There have been so many coincidences and positive things.”
These days, Amy is in a writing class being taught by none other than Niki Rockwell. “The reason I’m going is because I want to write my story,” she says. “The story of Bialystok is fascinating.”
She and Josh are heading back to Poland August 5, and there’s still room for volunteers. Knowing her story of serendipity, some are probably reading this article right now.
If you are interested in making a donation toward postage for the shipments of hats, scarves and mittens to Ukraine, there will be a fundraiser on February 12 from 2-5 p.m. during the NOA Gallery Artist Reception at The Groton Inn.