It has been an unbelievable 6 days in Poland with my old friend and colleague Rabbi Greg Alexander from Cape Town. On Thursday, we spent the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Greg’s first visit, my second, and it is impossible to describe the impact of being on the site of this brutally cruel place where so many of our people were slaughtered and burned and humiliated.
On Friday we got up at 5am in our Krakow hotel room to go back to Birkenau (otherwise known as Auschwitz II) to prepare for the 60 mile bike ride from there to the JCC in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter. Two survivors rode part of the way with us, Bernard and Marcel, who was liberated from this horrific place as a 10-year-old boy and walked these same 60 miles, so we rode in his footsteps and in his honor. The ride was so beautiful and moving and exhilarating, with a route on some lovely, rural bike paths passing rivers, lakes and forests. Everywhere we rode, local Poles were waving and cheering us on in a way that was very encouraging and somewhat redemptive of the devastating past.
Arriving at the JCC was festive and euphoric, full of symbolism in its celebration of a renewal of Jewish life in this place that was a vibrant center of creative and spiritual Jewish life before the war. Of course, Polish Jewry will never return to what it once was, but as Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of JCC Krakow, says, “it is no longer Auschwitz period, but Auschwitz comma.”
The JCC not only supports this rebirth of Jewish life and culture, but has also been helping some 230,000 Ukrainian refugees every day, of whom only about 2 percent are Jewish. Ride for the Living is over and I feel proud and grateful to have been a participant, but the work continues and it is not too late to contribute to Team Riding Rabbis Return here. Thanks so much to all of you who have already generously supported us!
Rabbi Greg and I made a podcast reflecting on this experience too, including Shabbat in Krakow with 700 people at a Friday night dinner with the the riders, the JCC, Hillel, The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Shuldrich, and many others; Shabbat services in a historic synagogue, a premier screening of an incredible new film, “For the Living,” focused on this ride, the closing night of Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival and so much more! In our last days in Krakow, we visited the Oskar Schindler factory museum, toured the Old Town and ate some great food! Here is a link to the podcast:
Right now, I am sitting in a café near our Airbnb on July 4th and we will be heading to the airport soon to fly to London. There is still so much to process about this amazing trip and, as many of you prepare to celebrate freedom and independence in a world where we see some of the same forces that led to the horrors of the Holocaust, haunting, lurking in the corridors of power and in hateful ideologies in too many countries, we must never take for granted freedom, democracy and human dignity for all.
Love and blessings,