A custom at Jewish cemeteries around the world is to recite the names of the loved ones departed. At hallowed places of Jewish tragedy such as Auschwitz/Birkenau, people often recite a list of names of their loved ones who were struck down sanctifying the name of God. That is what I found myself doing on a cloudy Friday in early June in front of 150 cyclists about to embark on the most meaningful bike ride of their lives.
Inspired by Robert Desmond, a young English Jew, who, three years ago, decided to bike from his home all the way to Auschwitz, over 25 days, the JCC Krakow Ride For the Living was created to memorialize the past, but also to celebrate the survival of Jews throughout communism and the revival of Jewish life — in Poland of all places. Not just in Poland, but in Krakow, down the road from the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.
My great-grandfather Michael ben Naftali Ferber was murdered in Berlin during Kristallnacht. My great-grandparents, Binyamin and Liczu Goldberg, from Mielec were murdered in their city and buried in an unknown grave. My grandfather’s brother, Yehoshua, murdered in Belzec, was just 27-years-old, a scion of the Lublin Yeshiva. My grandfather’s aunt, Rachel and her husband Chaim, son of Rabbi Nisan Shenirer of Krakow were murdered together with their children. Their 10 cousins of varying ages were all murdered in Tarnow, Lvov and Buczacz.
The list is frightening, paralyzing. What would have become of my extended family? How would the Jewish world have been different if these named did not represent death and destruction?
But then I continued with another list of names, this time not commemorating the tragic past; rather they signaled rebirth, return, revival!
Each name represented hundreds, if not thousands of young and old Poles who miraculously found their way back from being lost to Judaism. Each name a mini-redemption, as they embody the spirit of the Jewish people — netzach yisrael lo yeshaker (the eternity of Israel does not lie).
Devora, 28, found out she was Jewish at 12 and chose to learn about her heritage, engage in Jewish life in Krakow, and proudly tell her friends and family — I am Jewish. Paula found out when she was 30, after bumping into a rabbi at the mall. When asked if she was Jewish her response was, ‘no, I am not, but my grandmother was’. She has since returned to Jewish life along with her sister, mother, nieces. Marcjanna found out she was Jewish by causally asking her mom one day why her last name did not sound Polish. ‘Are we Russian? No, we are Jewish, did I never tell you…?’ Today she is deeply involved in Jewish life in Poland and around the world.
Damian’s grandfather bequeathed a treasured piece of jewelry to his grandson with strict instructions not to open it until his demise. After the Christian funeral, Damian and his mother opened up the package to find a Magen David. Today he wears it proudly. Serge found out his Jewish ancestry after applying for a visa to study in Poland—‘oh, my great-grandfather’s name was Moshe…’. Agnieszka was told she was Jewish by her grandmother one day before she died. She didn’t know what to do with that information until she arrived at the JCC in Krakow and we helped her enter the Jewish world.
And what of Agata, Gabriella, Magda, Chaya, Lesziek, Pinchas, Iwo, Iwona, Michael, Patryk, Julia, Dawid, Alicia…
The list goes on and on, names of forgotten Jews who now proudly live a Jewish life.
Today in Krakow, there are 600 Jewish members of the community; we believe there are thousands. In Warsaw, several thousands, and in other cities in Poland — we could reach tens of thousands.
This Ride for the Living symbolized for Jewish Poland that while we cherish the names of those lost to the Jewish people, we nevertheless have the opportunity and therefore the great responsibility to ensure that those Poles who do have Jewish roots — their names are not lost to the Jewish people forever.