It is often said that the holocaust is now passing from memory to history. Jewish children all over the world will soon grow up having no acquaintance with survivors and not even having parents and grandparents who experienced the Second World War and remember it. To keep alive consciousness of the greatest tragedy in our history and the greatest crime in all history the March of the Living was instituted some years ago. Participants march from Auschwitz 1 the largest concentration camp built by the Nazis to Auschwitz Birkenau the deadliest extermination camp built by them. This takes place on Yom Hashoah on 27th Nisan just five days after the end of Pesach in each year. Tens of thousands of people have taken part in this march over the years from all over the world.
In 2014 it was decided to add a Ride for the Living; a commemoration with a very different twist. Participants visit Auschwitz Birkenau and then cycle the ninety kilometres from Birkenau to the ancient city of Krakow former capital of Poland and home before the war to a thriving jewish community and to many of the great sages of Ashkenazi Jewry. There was an added incentive this year as one of the cyclists Marcel Zielinski was himself a survivor of Auschwitz, liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. An extraordinary man with an extraordinary story, he walked to Krakow after the liberation in the vain hope of finding members of his family who had survived. Discovering the complete void which was all that was left of Polish Jewry and the world in which he had been brought up, he left Poland, went on Aliyah to Israel, married another holocaust survivor and ended up as a paterfamilias in Montreal.
Ten years old at the time of the liberation in January 1945 he was eighty three when he participated in the ride this year though that was hard to credit when one saw him cycling and overtaking much younger cyclists. For all the drama in his life in person he is very understated, soft spoken, modest and not given to dramatic gestures. He could not say that we were retracing his exact steps after liberation as he could not remember them he was too young.
Marcel’s life and his extraordinary achievement were symbolic of the trip which was not so much about commemorating the Holocaust as about celebrating Jewish survival and moving forward; the future not the past. It attracted a number of high profile guests not only Rabbi Michael Shudrich the Chief Rabbi of Poland but also Paul Jones the US ambassador. There were many other non-Jews as well. At the end we were given a VIP Police escort as we climbed almost the only hills on the ride to finish with a spectacular view of the historic city.
The ride was timed to coincide with the beginning of the 27th Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow one of the oldest and largest Jewish festivals of its kind in the world and recent recipients of an award from the European Festivals Association. All over the city there were signs advertising events at the festival, just as throughout the year there are adverts of tours of Jewish interest including trips to the camps. Questions of taste are naturally raised by this but there is no escaping the fact that in that part of the world there is huge interest in the Jewish contribution to Poland and surprisingly in view of the tragic nature of Polish Jewish history being Jewish is regarded as cool.
For me it was enough to arrive in Krakow in time for Shabbat dinner with the community. The next day I was privileged to daven and to read the Haftarah at the shul of the Remah-Rabbi Moshe Isserlis – founder of Ashkenazi Jewish halachah- courtesy of our own Jonathan Webber temporary gabbai of the shul. Jonathan, who grew up in HGS and has family here, is doing valuable work in restoring the traditions of this ancient community. The theme of his work just like that of the ride is to celebrate the rich history of Polish Jewry not just to mourn its destruction – a message we ourselves should take to heart.