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.
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.