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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.