Browsed by
Tag: birkenau

Ride for the Living 2014

Ride for the Living 2014

In October 2013, I spent 25 days alone with my bike, cycling a WWII liberation path from London, across Europe, to Auschwitz. (See articles here)

It was a deeply meaningful trip, I did not want to dwell solely on the painful memories of this time in history, instead I wanted to look at the positive side of liberating Europe, the good that came with stopping the Nazi regime and celebrating the freedom we have today. Inevitably there were parts of the trip which were overwhelmingly emotional, wandering alone through the Flossenbürg concentration camp was certainly one of them, but the message of the trip was to enjoy the freedom that we now have.

On completing the trip, I spent the Shabbat in Krakow at the JCC. This centre was created thanks to Prince Charles’ ideas and WJR’s support. A place where everyone is welcomed to learn about the thriving Jewish life, in modern Poland.

Speaking to the director, Jonathan Ornstein, I realised that the bike ride should not end at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau; instead, I should finish the journey on a high note with the welcoming, friendly and growing Jewish Community in Krakow.

On Friday 6th June 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I set out, with 14 other people from the UK, USA, Israel and Poland, to complete the journey from Auschwitz to the JCC. We began the day with some very memorable tours of the camps,then got ready to set off on the bike ride, ready to see the current strong Jewish community of Krakow.

The riders at the gates of Auschwitz Birkenau
The riders at the gates of Auschwitz Birkenau

A moving ceremony in front of the camp gates involved a member of the Krakow community, Pani Zosia, speaking about how she had lost family here; she is grateful that there is a place for her in Poland to experience her Jewish identity now.

We set off on the relatively flat 90km ride along the river Wisla. We meandered down small country roads with little traffic and surprisingly beautiful scenery as the sun shone down on us. We contemplated the freedom we have and reflected on the horrors of the camp we had just cycled away from.

A great sense of camaraderie was amongst the group as we made our way across the southern part of Poland.

Eventually we came into Krakow and began to see the Wawel Castle overlooking the river. We knew we were nearly there. A wave of relief came over us after several hours of cycling. We all rode into the JCC as one cohort, welcomed by local members of the Polish community.

90km later at the JCC!
90km later at the JCC!

After celebratory hugs and pictures we quickly showered and changed before we were kindly welcomed to join the community for Friday night Shabbat dinner. Not only did we hear some older members of the community singing Yiddish songs that used to fill the area before the War, but we met young members who were discovering their Jewish identity and what it means to them.

We spent part of Shabbat walking around the beautifully modern town of Krakow, everyone exclaiming that they didn’t expect Poland to be this beautiful; suggesting that we could be anywhere in Europe.

The evening saw thousands of people (mostly Polish) coming together to experience all of Krakow’s seven synagogues open to the public in an event called 7@nite. A great bonding had occurred between our group, and we ended the unforgettable weekend experiencing the synagogues of the town that once were overflowing with Jewish traditions and life. Unfortunately only the small community still remains today, but they are still here singing the songs and reciting the prayers.

Despite expectations that it might be difficult to ride such a long distance after seeing the horrors of Auschwitz, every rider came away with an extremely positive experience and will no doubt encourage their friends to participate next year.

Please support the cause: http://www.mywjr.org.uk/dezzymei/

March of the Living 2014 (The March) – UK Group – Day 6

March of the Living 2014 (The March) – UK Group – Day 6

Finally we took part in the March today in order to commemorate and remember the losses of the Holocaust; and just as importantly to show the world that we are still here. Just a short 3km walk from Auschwitz 1 to Birkenau with 12,000 other people, mostly Jews, was an incredible sight.

Walking through the gates of Auschwitz 1
Walking through the gates of Auschwitz 1

Many of the survivors completed the walk too which was amazing. Their determination, despite their age, to complete this act is a sure sign of revenge. To stand where the Nazis had tried to kill them just 70 years ago, but now freely walking out of the camp at the end of the day.

I am extremely glad that in our closing processing session that everyone seemed to get something out of the trip. They learnt something that will stick with them forever and will hopefully encourage their friends, family, and even strangers to go on a trip. It truly is valuable to visit and I encourage the reader, if they haven’t been yet, to try and make the journey. For those that have, remember your journey and how important it was.

The Ceremony at Birkenau
The Ceremony at Birkenau

We need to learn these lessons, and there is no better way to reinforce them by setting aside some time in your life to remember.

<< Day 5 – Auschwitz and Birkenau

London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

My final day on this journey was expectedly unforgettable. Again the weather gods were on my side as I was awoken by the sun shining on my face. I had just over 40km to reach the destination that was still so distant in my mind. I held a strange sense of excitement of reaching the end of the trip, yet knew the day would be filled with sombre emotion.

The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp
The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp

I visited Lvov in the Ukraine earlier this year (by plane) and learnt about more of the mass killings that were carried out throughout the country. Jews were rounded up and shot mercilessly, only to be buried over with no memorial. This happened in almost every town in the Ukraine, where the majority of the population was almost always Jewish before the war, and almost non-existent after. That trip was filled with sad thoughts but I found myself returning home angry. Angry that these things could ever happen in the world (past, present and future).

I found the same anger hit me whilst contemplating the last push on my journey. I screamed reaching the top of hills with sweat dripping down my face. I gave every last bit of my legs to this final day on the bike. I am a lot fitter since the beginning of the trip; I was speeding along at speeds I never thought I would be able to sustain to finish the 2,222 kilometre journey. Gritting my teeth, breathing heavily, heart pounding hard, I pushed through the familiar feeling of pain in my legs.

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

Finally arriving at Auschwitz I was out of anger, I had used it all up. My legs complained to me in agony, but they quickly quietened down when my mind switched to thinking about the victims of this place. 1,500,000 people were killed in this camp. Women and children innocently slaughtered because they could not work for the Nazis. Only the men fit enough to work could extend their torture by weeks or perhaps months, if they were lucky, before malnutrition, disease or an SS guard would end it for them.

Sadness now filled my mind – despite having visited here before, despite having imagined reaching this well known place, despite learning about so much death, torture and tragedy over the past 25 days on my liberation path cycle. My eyes still drowning with emotion uncontrollably.

People from the whole of Europe were brought here in a logistically challenging exercise. On arrival the women, children and elderly were set aside to go straight to the gas chambers to be killed. They were told they were going to have a shower. The men would be determined fit by one man making a split-second decision based solely on appearance.

The Nazis took all possessions from the victims of the camp, even if they were part of the 25% lucky enough to not be killed immediately. Suitcases were searched carefully for any money or valuable items before being sent back to Germany for re-use.

Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here
Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here

Shoes of the dead were stacked high, 40,000 pairs of them were shown in a display cabinet. They were left when the Nazis evacuated. The laces of shoes were taken out for re-use; nothing was left unused. Body hair was removed before the culling in the gas chamber and used for textiles. Gold teeth were pulled out too after death.

Another display showed empty canisters, once containing Cyclone-B pellets that would turn to gas and cause cyanide poisoning to those inside the dark and small room. Pictures all over the museum show disturbing images, including piles of dead, naked bodies that were moved about in the organised mass killings. These pictures taken by the Nazis as they were so keen on documenting everything properly.

The intact gas chamber at Auschwitz is the most emotional place I have visited. I said Kaddish as I stood alone in the room. The same place my father and I had stood several years ago, now I was reciting the same Jewish remembrance prayer. The same place where many innocent people were deceived into thinking they were taking a shower, but were really going to their death by suffocation. It took up to 40 minutes before the guards were sure everyone was killed.

There are many more lessons and stories I can tell. I strongly believe that there is a value about visiting a place like this, it helps you to grow as a person and to understand the world more. There are some things you can’t learn in books. If you can go with family or a loved one then it helps not only to be there together, but also strengthens your bond.

The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz
The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz

Finally we were shown around Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp built to increase the capacity for killing. If you take the Nazi story step by step, you can see how they moved from isolating Jews in ghettos, to moving them to other work camps, to mass killing in this fashion. It did not happen overnight and took years to get to the stage it did.

The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber
The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber

There were many attempts at uprisings but anyone associated was killed. The local people in the town smelt something wrong, they heard rumours about what was going on. They knew. But they were powerless as any of their attempts at resistance were immediately punished with death.

Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau

I lay my tokens next to the main monument: first a British flag which has travelled with me the whole way; sand from the Normandy beaches stormed by British, American and Canadians; dirt from the forests of Verdun where the devastating parts of WWI took place and another fight occurred in WWII; stones from outside the Nuremberg trial rooms where some of the Nazis were sentenced to death; pebbles from the Flossenberg concentration camp where many died due to torturous conditions; and conkers from the Terezin concentration camp where we were warned to walk around the tree – a health and safety rule that we take for granted today but never came into consideration during the war. Finally, I placed a piece of rubble from one of the ruins of the gas chambers here at Auschwitz where many innocent people passed. I will never forget this end to my journey as long as I live.

Final quote

I have finally finished my journey. Being both British and Jewish I have related to the places the British soldiers trod to free the enslaved and tortured Jewish people. I definitely take great pride in being both, especially now.

JEWISH LIFE IN KRAKÓW POLAND