Jewish people associate Poland with death. We grew up with the stories, the horrors and the survivors; Yad Vashem, Holocaust Remembrance Days, and the frightening thought of Auschwitz. I remember the first time I saw a cattle-car and learned of the inhumane experience of shuffling Jews into storage cars with no food, water and basic needs. It became clear to me, as I imagined it probably horrifyingly dawned on our unsuspecting ancestors that the transport was one-way, a journey to their death.
One of the most famous Holocaust survivors and thinkers, Elie Wiesel, wrote about his harrowing experience as a young boy in 1944, being shipped from Hungary to Auschwitz. In one of his most important novels, indeed, the novel he considered most significant, called ‘Night‘, he writes about the cattle car experience:
Lying down was not an option, nor could we all sit down. We decided to take turns sitting. There was little air. The lucky ones found themselves near a window; they could watch the blooming countryside flit by. After two days of travel, thirst became intolerable, as did the heat…The train stopped in kaschau, a small town on the Czechoslovakian border. We realized then that we were not staying in Hungary. Our eyes opened. Too late. „There are eighty of you in this car“, the German officer added. „If anything goes missing, you will all be shot like dogs“. The [man] disappeared. The doors clanked shut. We had fallen into the trap up to our necks. The doors were nailed, the way back irrevocably cut off. The world had become a hermetically sealed cattle car… [A]s the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney in to a black sky…In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight.
Wiesel describes firsthand the terrifying realization that their journey ends at only one place, one final destination—the infernos of the crematoria. The book continues describing his survival, though his family and millions of others never made it back home.
Indeed all we have been looking for is a way back home; our collective consciousness is plagued by Auschwitz, paralyzing our ability to consider, even 70 years later, that a new generation of Jewish life can exist, and does exist, ‘down the road from Auschwitz’.
Yet, remarkably, Jewish life begins to emerge again in Poland, in Krakow, near Auschwitz. Last month I affixed a mezuzah on a new wing of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, though at present no community exists in Oswiecim. But one does exist and begins to thrive in Krakow. And much to the astonishment of Jews throughout the world and even in Krakow, Poles today do not all hate the Jewish people. In fact many volunteers at the JCC Krakow are not Jewish and simply help, out of friendship and respect.
Around six months ago we heard about a special visitor who rode his bike all the way from London to Auschwitz. It took him a month of intense riding but he ultimately reached his destination going through physical and emotional strain. Robert Desmond and I became good friends and for many Shabbatot he would join services and partake in my Torah classes. He is a young, idealistic, very capable Jewish man who has come to appreciate the revitalization of Jewish life in Poland as well.
In the spirit of Robert’s great ride, we came up with the realization that a profound homage to the memory of our loved ones at Auschwitz and a would be to create a ride FROM Auschwitz back TO Krakow and open it for all to participate. Robert took the reigns and together with JCC staff organized volunteers to ride and to facilitate the 90 kilometer journey so that all would run smoothly. The inaugural Ride for the Living was set for June 6th and preparations (and training!) got under way over the months to properly plan and organize this initial campaign.
Finally the day arrived and Robert brought with him from London a group of riders who registered and raised money for Jewish life in Krakow (including funds to support a trip to Israel for senior members of the JCC Krakow). They joined with members of the JCC, a group from America and myself as we set out for our journey back from Auschwitz.
The trip was planned for Friday morning which did pose some challenges as at 7:30 pm we would be bringing in the Shabbat in Krakow and the trip was supposed to take us 7 hours. At 11:30 a ceremony began in front of the gates of Birkenau. Several members of the Jewish community as well as myself and the Deputy Director of Auschwitz spoke of the significance in this first of its kind visit to this hallowed space. Millions of visitors make their way to Auschwitz by planes trains and automobiles but we were the first to mark the return in a Ride for Life symbolizing the indefatigable spirit of the Jewish people—you can break our bones, destroy our communities and seek to eradicate our memories but we will still survive, we will continue to build.
We will build an amazing land, our homeland with the blood and sweat of survivors and it will become a glorious symbol of Jewish sovereignty, security and openness to all religions to partake in that miracle. At the same time we will gather the survivors who never left Poland, who were crushed under the Communist regime, their Jewish spirits trampled, their willingness to live an open Jewish life extinguished–and we will rebuild their lives as well.
Our Ride For the Living was inaugurated with the beautiful words of Pani Zosia (Zofia Radzikowska), a child survivor who lost her father at Auschwitz:
Being here in this terrible place is especially difficult for me as I am a survivor Holocaust and my father was one of the victims here. But also I feel proud here and happy to tell and remember that Jewish life in Poland and especially in Krakow still goes on and better and better…I came here to tell I am grateful and happy we have the possibility to have here Jewish life…
After Pani Zosia I spoke of the two blessings we would be reciting: baruch dayan haemet, honouring the memory of the past, as well as Tefilat Haderech, praying to God for guidance on our future journeys.
The ride was lovely with the countryside flat and the weather perfect. Each rider managed to ride the 55 miles journey back to the JCC, back to life in Krakow. We all learned that we have the physical capacity to make such a journey and as the sun set and we joined for prayer and Shabbat dinner, we understood the importance of our message.
We hope that our Ride For the Living grabs hold the minds and hearts of Jews all over the world. Next year let us double and triple our riders so that we spread the message that while we must always commemorate the hell that is Birkenau and the souls who perished there, it must never be our final resting place. The Jewish journey will never stop at death but will return from there, not in cattle-cars led by others, but with our own two feet, riding ourselves to freedom and restored Jewish life in Poland.