Browsed by
Tag: friends

Jewish Life in Kraków Poland

Jewish Life in Kraków Poland

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.

Jonathan and Kasia, myself and Basia
Jonathan and Kasia, myself and Basia

<< DAY 25, KATOWICE TO AUSCHWITZ (OŚWIĘCIM) 42KM TODAY, 2222KM TOTAL

London to Auschwitz: Day 22, Prague to Ústí nad Orlicí, 155km today, 1935km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 22, Prague to Ústí nad Orlicí, 155km today, 1935km total

My mother, friend and I have had some quite poor experiences with the locals in Prague, as well as an abysmal boat tour! To add insult to injury, the hotel staff were also very rude on several occasions, which made us feel rather unwelcome in their country. This did not bode well for the remainder of the trip through the Czech Republic. Especially as I’ve been warned that the further east you go, the worse it gets…

Leaving the familiar faces of my Mum and David, I was off to be alone on the bike again – but this time the sun was out! Unfortunately though, I went straight into a strong headwind. A headwind that would not let off, even with the shielding of trees, forests or hedges. I felt good with my well rested legs but wind is possibly the most demoralising thing when on the bike (or maybe a downpour, I’m not sure which is worse).

Coming out of Prague I came across the Jewish cemetery which I explored and I paid my respects at the small memorial to those victims from Terezin – the concentration camp which I visited just a couple of days ago.

The memorial to Terezin victims in the Jewish Cemetery on the way out of Prague
The memorial to Terezin victims in the Jewish Cemetery on the way out of Prague

I saw many roadside memorials for the First and Second World Wars. Too many to count, but I stopped to pay my respects at many of them for the members of the town that they noted and to take a photo of the statues.

Just one of the many WWI and WWII memorials that I have seen by the road today
Just one of the many WWI and WWII memorials that I have seen by the road today

Having left the suburbs of Prague I was feeling strong. Gazing across the horizon I saw a big tank-like vehicle. As I got closer I could make out 4 army men standing around it, with another camouflage jeep just in front of it. It turned out to be a recommissioned Russian Army Tank. Bought from someone in Poland, it was road legal and used for fun. It had two machine guns (that were non-functioning) at the top and a massive V8 engine for some immense power. The tyres could be deflated and inflated from a compression tank inside to allow for beach driving, as well as being almost fully submersible with a propeller underneath at the back. One of the men looking after it was very sweet and told me all about it, however the others seemed quite unfriendly which was disappointing.

A recommissioned Russian tank with 6 litre V8 and a propeller to make it work in water
A recommissioned Russian tank with 6 litre V8 and a propeller to make it work in water

Pushing on I saw a few other cyclists, dog walkers and farmers. I smiled at all of them and waved at most but I didn’t get one smile back, let alone a wave. After a pit-stop lunch I saw many other miserable looking people; it looked as though each and everyone had a close family member recently pass away, they looked so sad. Most of them stared at me as I passed on my bike with a big smile trying to get some sort of positive response. Being alone on the bike with everyone looking extremely unfriendly is no fun and so I pushed further on the bike than planned because I didn’t want to have more interactions with sad or rude people.

A memorial plaque to what appears to be an RAF pilot from the Czech Republic
A memorial plaque to what appears to be an RAF pilot from the Czech Republic

Unfortunately I pushed on to a part where I would not see a big town for another 50km. This became quite difficult as night was fast approaching. Suddenly it was dark and my small bike lights had no chance at illuminating the road in the depths of the trees. The head wind felt stronger and the gradual incline that I had been on for hours (I didn’t realise this is why my pace was so slow) suddenly caused a long steep descent which I couldn’t enjoy because I couldn’t see anything!

Descending into the darkness with both hands holding the brakes firm, I slowly made it to the next town to find a closed hotel. Fortunately they had an unsecure WiFi network which allowed me to look up their number and phone them. They were fully booked. Searching on my map I moved on until I eventually found a small hostel on a side street in the village.

After a quick shower I went for a Chinese meal where an odd man from the country was also eating alone. He mentioned how he believed in UFOs and could give people energy with his hands. He also said he practised yoga to give him 40% more energy – he knows because he measured it… He was a 60 year old builder and carpenter who was very nice but still didn’t smile!

Just a few days are left on the road until I reach Auschwitz but there is still a fair way to cycle. The anticipation and excitement of reaching the end will no doubt help me along…

DAY 23, ÚSTÍ NAD ORLICÍ TO OPAVA, 140KM TODAY, 2075KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

Another emotional day as I reached a very significant milestone in the journey following the liberation path.

I have gone past the place where the allied forces met in the middle – the “anti-fascist coalition” as the monument recalls. The US Army and the Red Army met between the town of Borek and Rokycany. It was a very moving spot to reflect at because this signifies the end of the fighting journey for the troops. Now there was just a big mess to sort out.

I have come a long way. The furthest cycle trip I have ever done and it has taken weeks to get here. But I have travelled a similar physical journey to what a lot of the allies would have travelled from the D-Day landings in June 1944 to the declaration of peace in September 1945.

A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.
A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.

I was reminded by many more memorials that a lot of liberation occurred on this route; these markers hadn’t been seen in Germany but were abundant in France almost 2 weeks ago. They have a strangely uplifting feeling when I cycle past them or stop to reflect next to them. Each time I pass one I feel better about my trip and it gives me a boost of positive energy.

A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945
A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945

Another memorial was in Czech, but I have looked up the meaning which refers to Josef Molák. He was a significant member of a resistance group that was shot by the Nazi Gestapo in 1943.

Josefa Moláka was part of a resistance movement and was shot here in 1943
Josef Molák was part of a resistance movement and was shot here in 1943

A common thing to think about is what would I have done at the time. If I was free and not persecuted then would I be a member of or even lead a resistance group? What if, as was the case, anyone who had any known affiliation with anything that didn’t “fit” the Nazi regime is thrown into a camp or killed just like Josef was? Would I still have the chutzpah to put my life on the line for others? I certainly believe I would. This memorial helps me to remember and thank all the resistance members for their efforts that were critical to the liberation.

As I cycled alone over the remaining hills towards Prague I began to think: what would have happened if I was sent to a forced labour camp because of being Jewish? I am fit and healthy so would be made to work, but would I be fit and healthy enough to stay alive? I know from this trip I need a good amount of food and decent sleep and I can get very emotionally weak especially at times of fatigue. I’m always impressed with any survivors I meet, they always have incredible and inspiring determination.

The bridge into Prague
The bridge into Prague

Finally reaching Prague I was glad to see the familiar faces of my Mum and my friend David; having been alone for a few weeks this is a nice comfort. Especially since the language has changed again to something I can’t even relate to! I am very interested for tomorrow’s visit to another camp, especially with my Mum and David who haven’t been to any of the camps before.

DAY 20: REST DAY IN PRAGUE TO VISIT TEREZIN CONCENTRATION CAMP >>