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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:

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 4

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 4

Today was the most powerful of the trip so far. We spent a good part of the early afternoon touring the Kazimierz part of Kraków, the old Jewish Quarter.

After visiting the old, we went on to see the current Jewish Community Centre in this modern and trendy city. Firstly we heard from one of the survivors, Marla, who now lives in England. Her story is a horrifying first hand account of life in the harsh ghettos of Poland; she described the beatings that were given and the losses of friends and family, the deportations from one horrible place to another and then the unfathomable conditions within the death camp from where she was liberated by the British: called Bergen-Belsen. I have tremendous respect for the survivors for continually telling their story to many groups year after year. It cannot be easy re-telling difficult stories, let alone the energy needed to travel regularly across Europe. I thank them for joining us and I take it upon myself to ensure that their testimony isn’t forgotten going forward.

Following this we heard about the future of Jewish life here in Poland, specifically in Kraków. Members and volunteers of the current Jewish Community Centre spoke. These are young Jews who have been brought up Jewish in Poland or have discovered their Jewishness. One girl googled her name when she was 12 and found lots of Jewish content; she questioned her mother who confirmed it. She then set it upon herself to discover Judaism through the JCC and she is now a key member of the community. Another non-Jewish girl, Kinga, came to the JCC to learn about Judaism, only to discover that her Grandmother also kept milk and meat separate in the kitchen. Rabbi Avi Baumol pointed out that she is probably Jewish and is now part of a conversion class with him. Everyone here engages with Judaism in a positive way, in an open and welcoming context; a fantastic contrast to the history of the Nazi occupation. A discussion about current levels of antisemitism showed that the young people living here in Kraków feel very safe and extremely positive about a strong Jewish future despite the relatively small size right now.

Fortunately we had the opportunity to hear from another survivor, Renee. Her story involved many deportations to different camps. Each event seemed worse than the other; she mentioned the fear that overcame her when a man couldn’t get his wedding ring off when prompted by the SS on entry to a camp: he was threatened with the guards chopping the finger off but fortunately managed to squeeze it off. She mentioned someone who stole a small piece of bread that she was clutching whilst sleeping; she was saving it for her cousin but couldn’t believe someone could be so awful in the camp. Almost all of her family were lost to the Nazis and she spent time both at Auschwitz and finally Bergen-Belsen.

Renee and Me
Renee and Me

The camp was liberated by the British and the prisoners were treated extremely well by these soldiers. They had not been given any compassion for years, but the British did everything they could to make sure that the victims were looked after in the best possible way.

Our final “processing” session was extremely interesting. Focussing on the question of whether the world has a good Jewish future and specifically if Poland does. Our discussion took on many points, such as the prevalence of anti-semitism globally, but also about the validity of the small and powerful Jewish community in Kraków.

I raised a point from my personal experience with the JCC Kraków that I have been welcomed by the members, staff, volunteers and Rabbi for the last 6 months. We had a 150 person strong Seder night last week which was extremely powerful for me. The doors are open to anyone. This is a great statement, especially given the location. The key to a happy future is no doubt increasing education to everyone, no matter their background with Judaism. The level of observant Jews here is not going to grow overnight to the levels they were before the war, however this example of a strong Jewish open community here is immensely valuable and we all agree a fantastic attitude in making the world a better place.

<< Day 3 – Bełżec            Day 5 – Auschwitz and Birkenau >>

Adventures in Poland

Adventures in Poland

Cycling to Krakow from Katowice

A few weekends ago we (my girlfriend Basia and I), spent the Saturday on a fairly flat 80km cycle from our flat in Katowice to Krakow. The weather was perfect blue skies and not too hot at about 16 degrees. Having not done too much cycling since the big ride out here, almost 6 months ago now, where I averaged 100km a day for 22 days cycling, I was still in a good place to do a casual 80km. Basia however, had never gone more than 35km in one day!

We decided to set off early to give ourselves a good buffer should we need it. Not a great start though, just 100m down the road we had to stop though to put on a jumper (a sweater for my American friends, or ‘sweter’ for the Poles!). But on we pressed and hit 25km before we knew it.

Great cycling

I am helping to organise a charity ride in June which takes place in the same area of Poland: Silesia, where we will be riding from Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in Krakow. The ride is called “Ride for the Living”, the purpose is not just to remember the past horrors of Nazi controlled Poland, but also to look at the present and future Jewish Community in Krakow. See the website for more information of the 65km ride in June.

Pushing onwards, the sun was shining bright and we were cruising the Polish country roads. However, we were soon reminded of the history of the land when coming across a memorial for 42 people who had died in a work camp that was associated with Auschwitz. The plaque calls them Hitler’s victims. A solemn reminder of the history of a place that I have recently called home.

42 Auschwitz Memorial

Finally we did make it; a great achievement. Taking the slow train back home over 2 hours for a ride that was not much longer!

Hiking in the Bielsko Biała Forests

This past weekend we also spent most of the day hiking in the nearest hills, about an hour drive south from Katowice.

My first time properly using walking sticks actually proved quite easy. It takes a lot of weight off your knees when walking downhill, and as a friend mentioned to me, it is as if it takes the stress of a rucksack away.

Hiking View

A great day walking, but my mind still wanders to the people of this area, in the hills and in the forests during the Nazi occupation. The potential stories are unimaginable, but whilst taking on a recreational walk in these forests you can’t help but feel grateful for life and freedom.

Seder night in Krakow

Leading on from the theme of “Freedom” comes the story of Passover and the festival of Pesach in the Jewish religion. On Monday night we joined the community in Krakow for the Seder dinner to remember the exodus from Egypt and slavery. My first year not with my family, but with over 160 other people there I felt a great love from a different kind of family.

The moral of the story, is that no matter the hardship, in this case slavery, we have to keep pressing on and keep going. Even more poignant in Poland; but today we celebrate with 160 people strong at the JCC and many more in Krakow and the rest of Poland; still here, still moving forward. Very inspiring.

Join our bike ride to experience similar aventures – here

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