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The Ride of a Lifetime: A Message to Holocaust Survivors on Their Aliyah

(courtesy)
(courtesy)

The Jewish community of Montreal is very fortunate. Our community is and has been blessed by a large Holocaust survivor community who have enriched the lives of so many.

Those of us who are privileged to know, to get to spend time with and learn from Marcel and Maryla Zielinski are particularly blessed.

Marcel and Maryla are pillars of the survivor community in Montreal and through their participation in the March of the Living Programs over the years and through their informal education initiatives, countless people, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been touched by their story of love, loss, resilience, rebuilding and courage.

And for those of us who are privileged to call Marcel and Maryla friends, this Sunday – when they step on their Air Canada aliyah flight – it will be a bittersweet moment.

Marcel was born in Krakow in 1934 and when the war broke out he was 5 years old. Deprived of a normal childhood by the war and its aftermath, he did not have a bar mitzvah, a historic fact that was corrected some 69 years later in the remnants of a synagogue in Tykochin, Poland surrounded by close to 400 students during the 2016 March of the Living.

Marcel’s war years were spent in the Krakow ghetto and in the Plaszow, Gross-Rosen, and Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. In Plazsow, Marcel was designated to be deported to Birkenau with other young children. When his father spotted Marcel and realized what was happening, he pleaded with the Nazi commandant to spare his son. Marcel survived the war. His father did not.

Marcel was liberated from Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. He was 10 years old.

Cold, malnourished and with thin and tattered rags for clothing, he walked the approximate 100 kilometer journey from Auschwitz to his former home in Krakow on foot in an effort to locate his parents, a path that he would retrace years later only this time on a bike, at the head of the peloton, as part of the annual Ride for the Living, a fundraiser benefitting the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, an organization that is near and dear to Marcel.

Marcel did not find his parents that day and his childhood home was inhabited by strangers. He spent the next few months in a Krakow orphanage and in August of 1945 he was eventually reunited with his mother, who herself survived Auschwitz.

Marcel’s mother remarried after the war and her husband introduced Marcel to Maryla, who would become the love of his life. Marcel was 19 and Maryla, a hidden child during the war years, was 16. It was love at first sight and they married in 1957 and emigrated to Canada a few years later. It is a love story that almost 70 years later is still very evident and still in full bloom.

Perhaps attributable to his childhood war years of having to always move around, Marcel developed a passion for being “in motion,” as he puts it. After the war, Marcel became a competitive cyclist in Poland. His passion for cycling became a lifelong hobby and even a broken hip in 2018 did not keep him out of the saddle for very long. There are not many retirees I know who could cycle 6,000 kilometers over a six-week period on a trek from Canada’s coast-to-coast, as Marcel did when he retired from his engineering job in the aerospace industry in 1998. When Marcel was not on his bike, he was running and yes – in case you are wondering – Marcel was also a marathon runner.

On January 27, 2021, exactly 76 years from his liberation from Auschwitz, Louis Garneau, a renowned cyclist and cycling equipment entrepreneur cycled 100 kilometers in honour of Marcel and to commemorate the distance that Marcel walked on the day of his liberation.

Jonathan Ornstein, the Executive Director of the Krakow JCC, also recently re-traced Marcel’s steps in Poland on a cold and snowy day in February of 2021.

Like so many of us, Mr. Garneau and Mr. Ornstein were inspired and moved to action by Marcel and Maryla.

To our friends in Israel – take good care of Marcel and Maryla. In a land where heroism and courage can be felt in every city and on every corner, they will fit right in. Marcel and Maryla are incredibly courageous and strong. Really strong. Like Bubby Effie strong. Cherish them among the remaining heroes who survived the darkest days of humankind.

You might find Marcel on his bike (always at the head of the pack!) or you might find him performing a random act of kindness like fixing a flat tire for a complete stranger on the side of the road, you might even find him on all fours cozying up to someone’s pet. You might also find Marcel and Maryla at a bridge club, a café or a theater and when you do find them they will definitely be together, holding hands, enjoying each other’s company and perpetuating a love story for the ages.

And finally to our beloved Marcel and Maryla – your presence at our community events, in our homes and in our daily lives will be sorely missed but we are comforted in the knowledge that you will finally be close to your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. Years of virtual birthday messages will now be replaced with real, live and in-person hugs and kisses.

Rest assured that the legacy that you imparted, by word and by deed, to your friends in Montreal and beyond will continue to fuel our resolve to fight darkness with light. As you aptly put it during the recent commemoration marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, an event, which you attended in person: “There’s way too much hatred in the world. We always must REMEMBER and we must ALWAYS oppose antisemitism”.

During the waning years of the war, the Fighting Organization of the Jewish Pioneer Youth of Krakow published an underground newspaper. With the knowledge that their fighting days were numbered – on August 13th, 1943, they wrote:

Who knows what would have been the future of the Jewish people if there were no Yishuv of half a million in Palestine, that built its foundations before the war broke out and which has now reached a million souls. Only this nucleus of a Jewish State now offers assurance for our survival of the people. It makes us believe than an independent Jewish nation will rise again, a well-spring of profound spiritual values, as always.”.

The young men and women who penned these profound words were right although they could never at that dark moment in history have imagined the success, the beauty, the strength, the resilience and the vibrancy that is the State of Israel that you will be privileged to become an integral part of when step off that plane on Monday morning. It is a story that you both exemplify. Welcome home!

About the Author
Lawrence Witt is a labor, employment and human rights lawyer with the Canadian firm Miller Thomson LLP. In 2017, Lawrence was co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living Delegation comprising of 250 participants accompanied by 10 Holocaust survivors. In 2019, Lawrence received the Gertrude and Henry Plotnick Young Leadership Award from Federation CJA. Lawrence is also a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program. In the early 1990's, Lawrence studied at Yeshivat Machon Meir in Jerusalem and he subsequently served in the IDF as a lone soldier in the Armored Corps.
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