After my 2222km, 25 day cycle from London to Auschwitz, which I completed alone and unsupported, I stayed for Shabbat in Kraków, a major city close by in Poland. I visited here a few years ago with my father, cousin and friend in what was a very moving trip. We visited the Auschwitz camp and traced my family roots back to the Ukraine, close to Kiev.
The Kraków Jewish community was extremely welcoming again. Both my girlfriend and I were given a delicious Friday night meal in the Jewish Community Centre (JCC). Here we met many people from Kraków and others who were visiting from all around the world.
I remember my first few weeks at the Cambridge University Jewish Society where some 50-100 people regularly attended Friday night dinners. Each week new people would come up to me: “I don’t think we’ve met, I’m X, what’s your name?”. It didn’t take long before I knew everyone, and the same friendly atmosphere was here in Kraków.
I was asked to talk about my bike ride during their weekly announcements and with the help of a volunteer, it was translated into Polish for everyone. Knowing that Jews like their food, I only gave a brief account of the trip and invited any interested people to talk to me afterwards.
Immediately the Rabbi, Avi Baumol, introduced himself to me. He only recently joined the community but was very interested in my story. A very modern and intelligent man, he understands the people, he quite simply gets it. This Rabbi is a true asset to this community.
I met several full time employees of the JCC, some of whom are not Jewish but started off as volunteers for the experience. There is no prejudice against any form of Judaism or even non-Judaism here. The Rabbi discussed that the key part of this community is not necessarily Judaism, but kindness. This is incredibly forward thinking and leads to an incredible atmosphere.
I also joined the Saturday morning explanatory service with the Rabbi and several members of the Polish community. Speaking in Polish, English, Hebrew (and I think German), we managed to discuss and learn together.
There are many examples of families that have lost a Jewish identity either because of the War or the following communist era. Today, however, there is the opportunity at the JCC to rediscover their heritage, for example some of the students are able to recognise traditions their grandparents or parents had.
There are countless stories that the Rabbi has heard in his short time here so far. Some of the older members of the community casually mention some things that both he and I are astonished by. After the morning service we bumped into Jonathan Ornstein, who runs the whole JCC here. He had just been sitting in a “Children from the Holocaust” lunch where the older lady next to him happened to mention how her mother was hidden in a small hole in a non-Jew’s basement throughout the occupation.
Whilst in Kraków I was advised to take a tour around Schindler’s Factory which has been turned into a museum; I found myself wandering around the exhibition feeling ill from learning about the torture that the Nazis inflicted on the Jewish and Polish people here. Spending almost a month solid learning about these events had taken it’s toll on me. I now understand why many of the older generation don’t like talking about the war.
My bike trip had the purpose of learning about the past and to experience this journey in 2013. What I hadn’t realised is just how important it is to have a thriving community today. The extremely welcoming experience at the JCC in Kraków showed me how it is vital that we look forward. Jewish life here is brilliant, the community is growing and rebuilding. It is important to look back and understand the past, whilst ensuring that we learn from it as we look to the future. This is certainly being achieved here and it was an extremely happy place to end to my journey across Europe.
I would like to thank Jonathan, the Rabbi and everyone else at the community for a tremendous weekend in Kraków. I will no doubt be visiting again soon.