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Author: Robert Desmond

Programming Course: W3Schools

Programming Course: W3Schools

Everyone these days seems to want to become a software developer and has been asking me for tips on how to get involved. Now most people don’t actually want to change professions, but would rather just have a bit more domain knowledge so they can’t get bulls***ted about by developers.

 

Everything on the web is free and available I wouldn’t pay for a course. If you get stuck, Stack Overflow is the place you will end up – where someone will have already asked your question.

But where do you start?

Every website presents HTML code to the browser – so start there.

Then in order to style it you need CSS.

In order to interact with it you use a resource called jQuery (that runs in Javascript).

If you know the basics of all of these things then you can build websites.

The best resource I have found is W3Schools: http://www.w3schools.com/default.asp

It is completely free and each ‘course’ will only take a few weeks if you dedicate some good time to it.

This site has details about everything HTML and also has little tests and if you do actually want to pay: certificates if you so please!

Story Terrace: Create your Family Biography to Keep Forever

Story Terrace: Create your Family Biography to Keep Forever

Unfortunately all of my grandparents have now passed away; and for each one there are many lost memories. There are stories that we can remember small details of, and then there are meaningful events that we don’t even know we have lost.

Over time, the stories we do have fade. I remember a bit of my grandpa Harry’s life, I remember distinctly some lessons on how to deal with the monotony of school but there are so many things I wish I knew. My Nana couldn’t quite find the right way to get the stories down and I didn’t know that this would be important to me as I grew older.

Nana and me!
Nana and me!
Grandad and me!
Grandad and me!

It’s frankly difficult to capture those memories, yet objects and letters are so meaningful and valuable to look back on. I know some of my school essays are mesmerising to re-read but unfortunately I have thrown a lot of it away – along with it many irrecoverable memories of my own childhood.

Rutger Bruining noticed a few years ago that freelance writers were more readily available and he also saw the world of bespoke printing on the rise. Putting two and two together, he came up with a company called Story Terrace; the main concept to handle the end-to-end process of finding the correct writer, doing the face-to-face interviews, getting an outline of a life story, drafting it back and forth and then the editing, typesetting and printing.

It sounds complicated but he found a way to make it easy!

story-terrace-logo

I wish something like this existed or I knew about it at the time of trying to get my Nana’s stories down, she had a fascinating life. Nana worked in the Royal Air Force and was stationed in St. John’s College Cambridge, then she got married to a Scot (George) and had kids, sadly losing her husband to a heart problem which would be so treatable now, and bringing up 2 daughters by herself, somehow keeping the house, working as a driving instructress and sending my Mum to boarding school…the details mostly lost.

I was approached by Rutger almost 2 years ago now through a friend to just have a chat. I was looking to get my blog of my bike ride made into a book and he was the man to do it! He wanted to also ask a favour of fixing his website, and after several months of helping out and eventually becoming free from another project, I joined Story Terrace full time as their CTO.

We have sold over 150 packages in both the UK and the Netherlands. They have ranged from people who have barely left the town they were born in, to immigrant stories, to entrepreneurs and their business growth, to finally opening up about an abusive upbringing. We have also managed to tell some stories from people with terminal diseases who have since passed. The meaning to the families and friends of getting these stories down is indescribable.

rutger-and-his-mum
Rutger and a book about his mother(pictured)’s father

The challenge we have is getting the word out there that you can do this, and also convincing people that now is as good a time as ever to get these memories down, you can always come back to it in ten years and add a few new chapters.

I know I would like to read about my family and where we came from, and I am sure my children and grandchildren would like to learn a bit more about me at some point!

So please share this with others, and tell people about it – maybe even consider buying a package as a gift too. (storyterrace.com)

Ride for the Living 2016

Ride for the Living 2016

This is the speech that I gave at the opening ceremony from Ride for the Living 2016 in front of the 150 participants:

Speech at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Firstly, let me start off by expressing how important it is to me that through this Ride for the Living initiative, hundreds of people have come here to learn about the horrors of the past. My first visit here made me want to tell the world. I felt an innate desire, that I haven’t felt anywhere else, that everyone needs to learn about what humans are capable of. I am a well educated, self-identifying Jew in modern society, but it wasn’t until I actually came here to give some time to process it that I began to comprehend what happened here.

We all must remember the past, we must say our prayers for those who were murdered here. The crimes here are inexcusable; it makes us angry, it makes us upset. The most important first step for today’s generation is to visit, to dedicate at least a small amount of our lives to those that were lost.

Even more meaningful to me has been meeting survivors and hearing their testimonies first hand. Marcel Zielinski, who is with us today, didn’t speak about his experiences for many many years. He was liberated from here, from these gates. Right where we are standing, and had to walk, in the middle of winter, with snow everywhere and minus 20 degrees Celsius, in just his prisoner uniform, all the way back to Krakow hoping to find his family. It is a journey that we are recreating today and I genuinely thank you Marcel, and your loving family, for telling us what happened to you so that we can understand that this is no blip in history. I know it is not easy and so thank you.

After everything we have learnt, we still have to come back to today and live our lives today. This bike ride, is an act of celebrating life, of cycling away from these gates, away from this death camp, we have a purpose to continue living and this is the best revenge I can think of.

Our destination is the JCC Krakow. It is testament to the Jewish people, to the human spirit that it can thrive in today’s world literally just down the road from Auschwitz. Of course within this community we keep the holocaust in our minds every single day, but we also live. We live our lives as much as we can, taking advantage of every opportunity that comes our way. This is the best stand against those who wanted to wipe us off the earth.

If there is one thing to take from visiting Auschwitz, it is that racism, step by step, little by little, enforced by governments and society, can lead to this extreme form of genocide.

It is still so incomprehensible in our lives, yet it still happens in the world. We have seen it in Cambodia, Rwanda, Dafur. These acts of genocide are since the Holocaust. We humans have not learnt.

It is still going on – we can see it TODAY with the well reported Islamic State, and we hear about many rumours, well more than rumours in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, in Burma and Yemen, the list goes on. We humans have not learnt.

It is hard to know what to do. We can feel powerless.

However I believe we can all, together, make at least a little difference. I would like everyone to pledge something small. A first achievable step. Something that is easily attainable for when you get back home.

Perhaps it could be talking to a relative you haven’t spoken to for a long time; you could share your education from here by writing about your experience. You could volunteer at a local charity for just one hour – perhaps there is something else you have wanted to do but haven’t had the time to do it. Go and learn about a new culture that is living in your area that you haven’t yet explored.

Do something, whatever it is, but do something beyond this trip.

For everyone riding today, please do talk to a neighbouring cyclist about what you might do. Talk to a stranger and ask them what they are going to do.

After this trip we must also stand up for the oppressed. When you see intolerance in the world, whether it be about different races or religions, about a different gender, you call it out, you must stand up against injustice.

Finally as we cycle away from here, we keep what we have learnt in our minds and we keep the memory of those 6 million Jews who were murdered in our hearts. We keep the memory of the several million non-Jewish poles with us as well as the tens of millions of other innocent people who lost their lives because of World War 2. We will keep them with us forever. We vow that we will never be passive bystanders against any injustice in the world. In particular, anti-semitism isn’t going away and we must squash any step to repeat history:

From George Santayana, the quote that you see as you enter the first building in the Auschwitz museum:
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

3 Things To Think About For Holocaust Memorial Day

3 Things To Think About For Holocaust Memorial Day

For this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, a dear friend of mine, Jonathan Ornstein, the Director of the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow, and I are going to walk the (relatively) short 65km (40 miles) from Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow.

January 27th is the date that Auschwitz was liberated and a day that we mark to remember the victims of The Holocaust. On this day in 1945, the surviving prisoners could finally leave the confines of the electrified barbed wire fences. They were free to walk from the front gate as we will tomorrow morning. But over 1.1 million that were sent to the camp died here.

Visiting Auschwitz for the First Time
Visiting Auschwitz for the First Time with my family

I first visited Auschwitz in 2012 (4 years ago) and was incredibly moved by the whole thing. I am an educated British Jew, I was a committee member of the Jewish Society at University, I obviously learnt about WWII at school and at home; however it was only when I was standing at Auschwitz dedicating some small part of my life to understanding what happened that I really started to process how significant this event was that my grandparents lived through.

I felt an overwhelming urge (as I do every time I visit) to educate all of my friends who had not had this experience; however I found people reluctant to visit. Comfortable lives are a long way from the suffering of the past, no one wanted to go an be depressed. Personally I wanted to learn more and I wanted to educate others and so I took it upon myself to do more.

Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau
Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau

I embarked upon a mission to cycle from London to Auschwitz, essentially the same path soldiers would have taken, visiting sites along the way: Normandy beaches, Flossenburg camp, Terezin camp and finishing at Auschwitz. I documented the whole trip and got various articles in local and national papers published.

Now I volunteer for March of the Living (UK), an educational week-long tour around Poland, and, together with the JCC Krakow, set up Ride for the Living, an educational trip with an enjoyable and meaningful cycle from Auschwitz to the JCC, going from the dark past to the flourishing life today and the hopeful future.

What are the 3 most important things I’ve learnt?

  1. Education is the most important thing in the world to prevent this from happening again. I want to strongly urge people (to also urge their friends) who haven’t visited to sign up for our Ride for the Living in June, or if a bike isn’t to your liking, March of the Living UK in May. Otherwise learn about a new culture that you don’t know much about.
  2. Tolerance is the most relevant lesson for today. Everyone has prejudices about people, but we can all do better. There are ridiculous similarities with every persecuted group in the world. Situations have slight differences, but these are no excuses. The idea of a minority group being targeted because they are different in some way is just what the Nazis did to us Jews, no matter the group, no matter the injustice, it is just wrong.
  3. Hope is an incredible thing; always keep it because without it, very little would be achieved in the world. The JCC in Krakow, ‘down the road’ from Auschwitz, is testament to hope. No matter what the past has entailed, there is still hope for the future. If the Jewish people can build a community here, then anyone can overcome anything.
Kasia and Jonathan, Basia and me outside the JCC
Kasia and Jonathan, Basia and me outside the JCC
Norwood Trek 2015: Sudetes

Norwood Trek 2015: Sudetes

I was standing in a group of 40 in the mountains on the Polish-Czech border. We were saying the prayers to bring in the day of rest in the Jewish calendar, Shabbat, but the group was only about 50% Jewish. There were Muslims and Christians and a Hindu, not just from London, but from Ireland, Latvia, Czech Republic, Israel, Malta, the United States and Poland too. Ian Fagelson, who inspired the event, introduced the Jewish traditions by talking about the attempt by the Nazi’s to kill off the Jews in this area, but here we were still standing.Shabbat Dinner

Our group didn’t just contain Jews that would have been killed by Hitler, but we also had a couple of the service users of Norwood, handicapped but “highly functioning”, they still would be considered by the Nazi’s as too different and hence would have been sent to the gas chambers too. It was poignant on this trip to also respect the American traditions of the 4th July and discover more things about the Hindu and Muslim traditions.

There was no prejudice here, no preaching about how “our way is better than yours”, simply respect of others.

We spent 3 solid days hiking up to the top of the hills, along the plateau with some stunning views, and then down across the border into a valley to stay for the next night. On a trip like this you get to speak to people from all walks of life: there were innovators in business, technical strategists, business consultants, lawyers, charity workers, event coordinators, doctors and inspirational care workers who would take on the physical challenge whilst helping the service users for the rest of the day, ready for anything 24/7.

Stunning Views

For me it was a time to decompress from staring at a screen all day. It was a time to reflect on life, on love and to contemplate the bigger picture rather than focusing on day to day tasks. Whilst in the mountains for 10 hours a day hiking you are more open to share your life with your fellow ramblers. Immediately friendships are made as you learn the details of other’s lives in a relaxed environment; somewhere you feel you can share everything.

The people on the trip are outgoing enough to make the time and effort to fundraise, to travel somewhere new; they are adventurous enough to take part and are therefore incredibly interesting to talk to.

 

Hiking up a hill

You are told about other’s experiences, what they chose to do in life, what they are doing now and what they plan to accomplish in the future. With a diverse mix, you really get to experience the paths you haven’t yet walked (pun intended). People are relaxed to share their failures too, not just their successes and you have enough time to go into detail to learn what to do and what not to do.

Not only this, but it is wonderful to see the service users experiencing life and travel. Not so long ago and without services like Norwood, these people would have little chance to explore the world, let alone take on a physical challenge like this.

I highly recommend a Norwood challenge like this – something to perhaps take you out of your comfort zone. In fact, if you don’t enjoy it then I will give you your money back!

Life is made up of experiences, and if you haven’t experienced anything, you haven’t lived!

Ride for the Living 2015

Ride for the Living 2015

Marcel Zielinski, his son Betzalel, and two granddaughters, Tamar and Chen, and I cycled side by side along the River Vistula just as the sun was setting, we were finally coming into Krakow after a long day cycling. Together with 80 others taking part in this ride.

70 years ago, after being liberated by the Russian Army, Marcel was completing the same journey, on foot, still in his prisoner uniform from Auschwitz-Birkenau back to his home town of Krakow. Marcel was just a 10 year old boy, and at that time he didn’t know if he would see any of his family again.

This year it was different. He had his family next to him and I am privileged to have witnessed it.

Coming into the JCC

In life, a lot of random things happen, and 3 years ago, by a chain of several chance encounters, I was on a flight to Krakow to visit Auschwitz. A place where “bad things happened”, a place that no-one wanted to talk about in detail. Suddenly I was standing on the spot where children, women and the elderly were sent to a room to be gassed simply because they were Jewish, only some young fit men might survive long enough to die from malnutrition, beatings or other torture from the Nazi death camp.

Perhaps my connection is because I would be in this group if I wasn’t born years later. Perhaps the connection is simply human – innocent people murdered systematically on an industrial scale.

A difficulty for me, is that despite a Jewish identity, despite a good education, I didn’t know much about the holocaust. This event that happened just 70 years ago just across Europe. How is someone who hasn’t learnt about the holocaust, let alone met a Jew, meant to relate to this ridiculously significant event?

On returning home I was determined to get others to have the same experience, to learn about what intolerance and fear of “outsiders” can lead to. I see racism towards ethnic, religious and social groups even in my privileged world – surely something is wrong even today and we need to be better – surely education can help?

However I found people didn’t really want to experience it, they didn’t want to be upset by the past. I had to find another way to get their attention. By another coincidence I met a beautiful Polish woman who lived just 40km away from Auschwitz. Somehow the idea of cycling to Auschwitz and staying with this lady beyond the trip came about. The idea being to complete a memorial ride for myself, to help me understand more, but also to educate those who didn’t want to visit.

I spent 25 days on the road alone, seeing historical sites of interests, Normandy beaches, war cemeteries, transit and concentration camps, only to end in the biggest ‘pin-up’ of the holocaust, the death camp of Auschwitz.

Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau
Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau

Afterwards I was lucky to meet the Jewish Community of Krakow, this community is so close to Auschwitz, but they still continue their traditions today. The contemplation from the overwhelmingly oppressive past was juxtaposed to the life that people were living today. The message was so strong to me: no matter the past, we have to come back to today; we can and we must still live today and make the most of our lives.

Talking with the community there, it was clear my ride should not end at Auschwitz, a place of sadness and death, but it should end at this JCC a place of happiness and life. Together with the JCC, we created “Ride for the Living”, a relatively short ride that would allow other’s to join us as we celebrated our lives today. Obviously there is still the importance of understanding history, and so the trip must incorporate an educational tour around Auschwitz and contain the memorial prayers necessary on sites like this, but it must also include the positive action of getting on our bikes to cycle to the JCC over the course of a day, away from Auschwitz.

The riders at the gates of Auschwitz Birkenau

In 2014 we had 15 people complete the ride. It was a sponsored ride to support the holocaust survivors at the JCC. The money raised created a trip for them to go to Israel together. 30 Polish Holocaust survivors toured the whole country of Israel over a week. They bonded, shared stories, met family and new friends. For some it was possibly their last trip abroad, and for a few it was their first.

The most moving moment of which involved these survivors standing in the garden of the righteous, pointing to the non-Jews who saved them and their families. The good will of these people was so important, without it these survivors would not exist.

Anna Righteous

With such a great success we wanted to recreate it again in 2015, but this time bigger.

Another chance coincidence was when a Canadian man, Marcel Zielinski, emailed us to say he would join – a friend of his somehow heard about the first year. The following week he completed an interview with the Montreal Gazette where he spoke about how he had been imprisoned at Auschwitz and had completed the same journey to Krakow on foot after liberation in 1945. He spoke about how he wanted to come back and do it again, as a free man, together with his family. A message to the Nazis that he is still here, he has created a life and a family despite the family that he lost.

I was so moved by his interview that I had to sponsor him myself!

We exchanged emails before the event and it wasn’t long before the long anticipated day when we met in Poland. We saw each other and without a word embraced in a hug. We didn’t need to say anything. It was incredibly emotional to finally meet, especially as within an hour we were touring Auschwitz together in our group of 30. He spoke about his experiences in the camp, in particular mentioning an emotional time where he saw his mother across the camp, and recalling the last moment he saw his father.

Our guide mentioned that Auschwitz was the only camp to tattoo numbers on people; Marcel calmly lifted his arm to show the dark ink that had not moved from his arm for more than 70 years.

Tour of Auschwitz 1

It is incredibly special to have a survivor on a tour, hearing first hand what their experience was like in this camp. It’s not just hearing the person’s own hardships that are unimaginable in our lives today, but it’s imagining the 6 million stories that we can’t hear. Not to mention the many who never spoke about the experience and have since passed and those who are still scarred from the event to bring it all back up.

After a moving ceremony to remember those lives lost here, we regrouped to process our thoughts from the day. Many having been overwhelmed by the content of what they had witnessed, but leaving with a better understanding of what intolerance can lead to.

Inevitably you try and put yourself in the situation, but you can never understand what you might have done, it’s an impossible question to answer, but it is clear that the Nazis were doing wrong, and it’s clear that we must learn and educate others about this wrongdoing. I am extremely glad that I managed to get a group of my friends and my mother to visit for the first time. I am also glad the event has inspired those from across the pond in North America to make the journey too.


 

The following morning, we awoke early to meet outside the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. After moving speeches from Marcel and Rabbi Avi I fulfilled my vision to hug Marcel outside of these gates. Together, as free men, we got on our bikes and cycled away from those gates of death, ready to enjoy a day of cycling. I witnessed Marcel’s determination to complete this ride, along with the ongoing energy his granddaughters put in. It was inspiring.

Hugging outside Birkenau

Everyone Outside Birkenau

The route was different this year, for some logistical reason there were more hills and an extra 8 miles of road to cycle. A few people complained, but shortly remembered that any pain of cycling on this day would pale in insignificance compared to the place we had just cycled from. In fact it was a good thing the ride was harder than expected, it made it a real challenge and a memorable experience – a real metaphor for the Jewish journey experiencing a longer, tougher journey than expected.

Marcel and I had a good amount of time to chat during the day. We spoke of many things and I am so happy that I got the opportunity to do so. He mentioned his 50 a day smoking habit that he and his wife kicked one day, going through cold-turkey and starting a fitness regime of running several marathons (sub 3 and a half hours – my new challenge!). He was an inspiration to me before we met, but hearing more about his life attitude is humbling.

As the sun was setting and we neared the Jewish Community Centre, I looked over to Marcel, his son and his granddaughters, and without word we knew what a fantastic achievement this was, especially for Marcel, over 80 years old and still on the bike. Absolutely incredible.

Jonathan Finishing

We were greeted with cheers and applause as we arrived. An incredibly overwhelming moment that I will never forget.

After we calmed down from the excitement, we sat together outside as a massive group of 200 people including the local community of Krakow. A wonderful way to come into Shabbat, the day of well needed rest.

For Havdalah, the service to come out of Shabbat, we welcomed the week with Rabbi Avi and Marcel leading the service. This tradition is one that many Jews, as well as Nazis, thought was destroyed here. Yet here we still stand, keeping up these rituals to bring our community together. The courtyard of the JCC was full with people joining this tradition defiant to the past.

JCC Havdalah

I went to give my thanks to Marcel for his involvement and we embraced again. Tears of sadness flowed from both our eyes, remembering the past and what was lost, but they were combined with tears of happiness from a wonderful weekend of living life today.

I would like to thank Marcel, his beautiful and welcoming wife Maryla, son and granddaughters, the whole Zielinski family, for making it as special as it was. Thanks also goes to the JCC for everything they have done and continue to do in creating this environment of embracing Jewish life. Last to mention, and certainly not the least, are the people who joined the ride. Those who made the journey to Poland. Those who learnt about the past, who took part in the bike ride adventure and will no doubt educate others about their experience.

London, Anne Frank’s House, Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and JCC Krakow’s Ride for the Living

London, Anne Frank’s House, Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and JCC Krakow’s Ride for the Living

Life is made up of experiences, and I have certainly lived over the past week.

A friend of mine was joining a charity bike ride from London to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Without hesitation I signed up to retrace the Kindertransport route through Harwich, then taking the ferry to Hook of Holland where more than 10,000 Jewish children passed as they were saved from the Nazis.

A group of 18 of us had a tremendous tailwind along the seafront cycle lanes to Amsterdam. On arrival we had a tour of the Anne Frank House which describes one young lady’s story in hiding throughout the war. Our group of 20 cyclists contained a man who’s grandmother was in exactly the same situation as Anne Frank, but she somehow was never discovered. In fact, she was being hidden on the same street, just a few houses down – somehow she managed to survive.

Anne Frank Bookcase

The story told us how this young girl couldn’t leave her house, she could only carefully look out of the window. This would be torture for me, unable to exercise or explore the world, what a terrible state to be forced into for an indefinite amount of time.

Four of our cyclist group took a few extra days off work to push onwards from Amsterdam to Bergen-Belsen. We were without support as we attached heavy pannier bags to the back of our now cumbersome bikes. We arrived in Westerbork just a couple of days later, where 107,000 Dutch Jews were sent through, and only 5,000 of which survived. The place itself was not a place of death, but merely an imprisoned camp until the transport that would take you into the unknown. With hindsight, this was a waiting room for death.

Westerbork Memorial

Our group, now close knit after several days together with an emotional journey, continued on to the most beautiful cycling through the Dutch forests, we crossed into Germany on a dirt road with just a small sign to signify this milestone.

We had many discussions and conversations about what we should do today to combat racism; noting that the Nazi regime achieved their goals by slow and incremental change through propaganda. We all decided that education had to play a big part of it. Suggesting that the difficulty comes from those who are brought up in closed off families, unable to experience life outside of their narrow perception of the world.

After 6 days of cycling, we finally made it to Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp where tens of thousands were killed. The British freed this camp in 1945, just a few months after Anne Frank had passed away from Typhus.

Bergen Belsen Gates

Several survivors I have met over the years were in the Bergen-Belsen camp on that day, and so it was powerful to stand in the same spot as my friends had. The museum here was all about first hand accounts; there were many survivor interviews, raw BBC videos and many written testimonies. Particularly poignant to me was a clip of a soldier, just one year younger than myself, who was standing there, in front of piles of dead bodies from the camp in 1945 commenting on how disgraceful the whole experience was. He exclaimed that when he first saw this place, he realised what he was fighting for, he recognised what him and his fellow soldiers signed up for and what they would be willing to die for.

There are many perspectives for different topics in life, but this is the most sure things I have ever experienced: fighting against Nazi’s is one of the most clear cut things in my mind that is good in this world.

This footage also contained some disturbing images of Jewish corpses being buried by the German SS guards after their surrender. The lack of care to the dead was horrifying as bodies were dragged across the dirt into mass grave pits.

It was in this pile of people that we expect Anne Frank to have been having died of typhus just months before this footage was recorded. The faces are anonymous, and the mound too large to contemplate. Yet this was just one of many mounds in this camp, and this camp just one of far too many camps.

Anne Frank Stone Bergen

The story of Anne Frank is just one of the 6 million Jews who were killed, her powerful story has made her become the face of the faceless millions who were persecuted – not just those who were killed.

Our group contemplated the whole unbelievable situation for the remaining 50km to Hannover. Within a few kilometres we were cycling among the most beautiful forest I have ever seen, quite a contrast to the horrors that went on just around the corner.

The following day, we flew to Krakow where we joined a group of 85 others for Ride for the Living. First we would tour around Auschwitz to educate ourselves more about history, but the following day would involve a bike ride from the gates of Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. A cycle that would act not just as a memorial ride, but a ride of defiance against the Nazi’s.

Auschwitz Ride for the Living

We were lucky to be joined by Marcel Zielinski who is now over 80. He was freed from Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was just 10 years old, and ended up walking the same route to Krakow to try and find his remaining family. This year, he joined us, cycling as a free man, together with his son and two grand-daughters. It was the most incredible feeling to cycle together through the gates of the JCC. After the long journey, Marcel and I embraced with tears in all of our eyes, sad tears from remembering the past, but happy tears from making the most of today.

My closing comments to the group included quoting my Mum: “everything happens for a reason” – but perhaps this can be derived if you have a positive outlook on life. I believe that anything from the past can be overcome if you have the right attitude today. The past cannot be changed; we must learn, we must never forget, but we must also live for today and for our future. That is exactly what this whole journey was about.

March of the Living 2015

March of the Living 2015

Walking into the Bełżec Memorial, one of the six death camps established by the Nazis, I was nervous as I led 45 young professionals, from March of the Living UK, down the path into the museum.  Suddenly, my new friend Harry Olmer, a survivor from the Holocaust, grabbed my arm and led me to the museum desk.  He proceeded to open up a book and pointed directly to a picture of his mother and sister, who were slaughtered right there, on the site where the Memorial now stands.

There are very few moments in my life, if any, that have been more powerful than that. This really drives home the fact that this history is not so far in the past. Here is Harry, a dentist from Hendon, who retired at 86 just last year, just a few hours flight from London (the same distance as Spain) where his family was taken brutally from him.

Harry and the group at Belzec
Harry and the group at Belzec

“To hear a witness, it to become a witness” – Elie Wiesel.

March of the Living UK focuses on education. This year it consisted of 250 people from the UK, and over 10,000 from around the world. The UK delegation has an incredibly mature approach – to present facts, to give an experience and not push a particular agenda. We are aware that individuals have different perspectives, and that each person is entitled to their thoughts, but to not experience the detail of the story is not how the world should operate.

Education, education, education.

The content throughout was vast and full of emotion. We explored life before the War, visiting the Museum of Jewish Life in Warsaw, which described hundreds of years where Jews were mostly OK in this part of Europe, and occasionally thriving. We then saw the Memorials to those holding out until the bitter end in the Warsaw Ghetto, where brave young men tried their best to fight back.

We were audience to moving speeches from Survivors themselves, and visited just a few of the far too many sites of murder, of death, of torment, all stemming from segregation by way of the ghettos.

We visited Majdanek, a death camp that is almost exactly as it stood when it was in operation in the 40s. We were told of the clinical detail and processes the Nazis undertook to perfect the gassing of people, the harvesting of belongings and the cremating of bodies. We saw just a few thousand pairs of shoes that were left behind when the camp was liberated, the rest having been sent back to Germany. Selecting one of the shoes, we tried to imagine who it belonged to and the tragedy that they faced.

Shoes found at the camps after liberation
Shoes found at the camps after liberation

We came with an abundance of questions, and no doubt left with many more.

How can something like this happen? How can there be so few held accountable for so many deaths? What should I do now? What can I do now?

And of course, the unanswerable and torturous question of “What would I have done?“.

We asked Harry his opinion of Germans now, and with a shrug, he responded “people are people, and we have to accept them for who they are”. This comes from a man who was ripped from his family, transferred from work camp to work camp under terrible conditions with death all around, and somehow he survived the whole War.

Walking on the actual March
Walking on the actual March

March of the Living is not there to inflict depression, nor leave your eyes streaming with tears. There were of course emotional moments, however through education and experience comes the opportunity to open your eyes to some of the most incomprehensible things.

Auschwitz, a site I have visited more than 10 times now, always has something new that gets you. This time, I walked with a member from our group to the actual barrack that ‘housed’ his grandmother. It was located on a side of Auschwitz-Birkenau that I had never even walked to because it was so far away. There was a bunker, still standing, with rows and rows of bunks, essentially where this man’s grandmother would have slept. I started to process that this was where people actually were; not just a picture from a book, not just something from history, but something people we know experienced.

At the end of the day, we always have to come back to our current day reality.

Three members from our group stayed on and joined me in experiencing the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. A community that is enjoying life and continuing to grow, a prime example that no matter the past, we must keep going.

We witnessed survivors still in the community. Pani Zosia, a member who had little/no Jewish identity throughout communism, delivered the D’var Torah to the Friday night contingent of 100 people. Mundek also sang Yiddish songs that, with the exception of the last few years at the JCC, have not been heard in this area for over 70 years. Now, the whole community is familiar enough with them to join in.

Auschwitz with the Chief Rabbi, Harry Olmer and Rabbi Gideon Sylvester
Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Chief Rabbi, Harry Olmer and Rabbi Gideon Sylvester

At the end of our six days, I asked Harry what had kept him going throughout his ordeal, but the question had never entered his mind. Harry had to keep going, he had to do whatever it took to get through, just because.

This week with March of the Living was the most valuable week of education and reflection; much more meaningful than a holiday anywhere else. Next year you should join.

WordPress Debugging: Optimising and making slow instances run faster

WordPress Debugging: Optimising and making slow instances run faster

I have a client whose WordPress site was compromised in the past and I managed to make some huge improvements by some use of a simple plugin – P3 Profiler.

It was very easy to install and setup (I had to add a profiles directory to the wp-content/uploads directory and also make sure that the Media links directory was correct – I was testing on a local version so needed to update this).

After running the scan I could see that there were clearly some slow plugins working – mainly a re-captcha plugin. I decided it was probably better to have the site running faster than have this in place, and I could always look for another solution further down the line if there was too much spam on the forms.

I also played around with a lot of the theme’s settings. In my case “Brooklyn” that had a progress bar load on every page which simply wasn’t needed and slowed things down. Removing these slow unneeded plugins and updating the theme options makes the site run a lot quicker.

We also had issues with a virus that had got into the site. The best way to get rid of it was to install and Anti-Malware plugin (Anti-Malware from GOTMLS.NET) and run a scan to simply check for compromised files and remove them automatically or manually.

I’m learning a lot about how to keep WordPress clean and fast, and these tips should help you too!

A New Adventure: Home to Athens (via the Marathon)

A New Adventure: Home to Athens (via the Marathon)

After a great adventure by kayak across the whole of Poland last summer, I am itching to get back on my bike for a new adventure. The bike allows for a much faster speed and easily accessible hot food along the route!

I have always wanted to go to Marathon, Greece and run the original 25 mile route from Marathon to Athens that was taken by an ancient greek messenger. From where I currently call home (Katowice, Poland), there is a very interesting route, passing (albeit briefly in some) through 11 different countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and finally Greece).

Katowice to AthensThis new adventure is approximately 2200km, just like the London to Auschwitz bike ride. However, this new journey appears more hilly, especially the second half. London to Auschwitz took 25 days, but I did stop off at a lot of sites to explore and I didn’t push the cycling too much.

Now the question is “when?” As a freelance software developer, I live in project work, and I am hoping to forge a gap in the projects within the next few months of winter.

Why do it in Winter? Why not? Adventure!

The cold of winter can be overcome with more layers – and actually, extreme minus temperatures are too cold to snow or rain, saving you from becoming damp. The difficulty with winter comes when you only have 8 hours of sunlight as you do here in Poland now. Fortunately I will be heading southwards and so the days will be getting longer as I go – in Athens right now there are almost 2 hours more sunlight a day and the temperatures are in the teens – warm enough for tee shirt and shorts!

I am looking for people (who might know people) along the route who I could stay with or at least meet for company. If you know anyone directly, or friends of friends, please do put me in contact with them! Failing that, I was planning on finding hostels/hotels that will no doubt be relatively cheap in this part of Europe. I haven’t brought myself to the idea of camping wild in winter on a cycling trip yet!

Similarly, if you have visited this part of the world before and have some recommendations, I would appreciate advice! The UK Government website suggests that all of these countries need NO visas and are all perfectly safe, apart from a few countries that might still have active landmines.