I recently returned from a trip to Poland where I had the great pleasure and privilege of participating in the Ride for the Living, a 55-mile bicycle ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp to the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, Poland, from the scene of the greatest destruction of our people to a place of renewal, great energy, hope and Jewish vitality. My son Boaz and I traveled to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic on this journey, but mostly we visited Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk, all places of both general and tremendous Jewish interest. Two of my grandparents were born and grew up in Poland, and up until the Holocaust there was a thousand years of Jewish life in the country, which in the 1930s had more Jews than any other place in the world, about 3 million people, roughly 10% of the population of Poland.
Until three years ago I had never had any desire to visit Poland, for fairly obvious reasons: most of what I had heard about it involved the impoverished shtetl plagued by Anti-Semitism suffered at the hands of gentile Polish neighbors, plus periodic historic brutality inflicted by invading Russians, Germans and Cossacks, all followed by the Shoah, the horrific annihilation of the Jewish people by the Nazis. I knew of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, its heroism but also its brutal suppression by the Nazis, and the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry. To me, Poland symbolized a Jewish graveyard, and there was no reason to visit it.
And then in 2015 I attended the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where 2 million Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis. It was a moving ceremony and powerful, but along the way in the course of visiting Krakow and Warsaw, Gura Kalawarya and Czestochowa, I discovered that Poland was a very different place than I had been led to believe. For one thing, while the contemporary Jewish population was tiny compared to what it was before the Holocaust and the subsequent forty-five years of Communist-era repression, today it was vibrant and deeply interested in reviving Jewish identity and spirituality and study. For another, the young non-Jewish Poles I met were very interested in Judaism, and often expressed how something was missing in their country--and that something was the Jewish population that had been integral to their nation and culture for a millennium.
This was most evident in Krakow, second largest city in Poland and in many ways its cultural capital, a beautiful place of gorgeous old buildings from castles to cathedrals to elegant 19th century palaces, plus a vibrant and active Jewish area called Kazimierz. I discovered that the JCC had many non-Jewish young Poles who energetically volunteered and worked there and found it to be a centrally fulfilling place: they helped Holocaust survivors, learned about Judaism, were active and committed to the development of Jewish life. That trip in January 2015 was also partly to visit the man who had received our Cohon Memorial Foundation award for his work for Jewish unity and education for founding the JCC in Krakow, Jonathan Ornstein. Mind you, it was in January at the time so it was brutally cold, but still I found myself captivated by Poland. The people were warm and kind, the food was shockingly good as was the beer, and there was so much to see that was both culturally interesting and fascinating. And there were so many things that seemed familiar and, well, Jewish from food to music to art.
I asked my son Boaz if he was interested in a post-college graduation trip in which we would indulge in our mutual enjoyment of cycling, connect to a fascinating Jewish revival and see some of Poland and Europe. He surprised me by being not only interested but eager to go, said he wanted to see concentration camp firsthand, and felt it was important to assert a positive Jewish presence when the Polish government had just passed a law criminalizing any mention that Poland was complicit in any part of the Holocaust. On the visit this time we would be going back in summer, when Poland is pleasant and it only rains a bit each day, and when the Ride for the Living was timed to coincide with the largest Jewish Festival in Europe which takes place in Krakow at the end of June.
And so we went and had an extraordinary time of it, exploring Warsaw and its phenomenal Polinn Museum, which traces 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland creatively and beautifully (it was voted the best museum in all of Europe a couple of years ago) as well as the Polish Uprising Museum, a memorial to the Poles' brutal fight against the Nazis in 1945. I helped lead Shabbat services in both Warsaw and Krakow, which led to friendships and connections with some of the vibrant non-Orthodox Jewish communities there. We toured Gdansk, a lovely city on the Baltic Sea where the Solidarity Movement began, the popular movement that ultimately defeated Communism in Poland and started its fall everywhere behind the Iron Curtain. And we came to Krakow, experienced its charm and beauty, attended some of the Jewish Festival events and concerts, recorded some interviews for The Too Jewish Radio Show. And then we toured Auschwitz with the Ride for the Living group, and the next day participated in the incredible ride itself.
There is no way to fully describe the solidarity experienced riding with over 200 people joined together for this powerful and good purpose. We began before the entrance gate of Auschwitz with speeches by two Holocaust survivors who rode with us--one, Bernard, 88 years old and the other, Marcel, 83 years old. Both had walked out of Auschwitz when the Russians liberated it 73 years ago, Bernard at 16 years old, Marcel at 10. There were brief, moving speeches by those who originated the ride five years ago, and by Jonathan Ornstein and Rabbi Avi. And the unexpected celebrity, Greg Lemond, three-time Tour de France winner, the first American to win the most important cycle race in the world, rode with us and spoke about cycling capacity to bring people together for good. He was simply fantastic, friendly, open, delightful, rode the whole way chatting and helping others. He came, at his own expense, because he understood what it all stood for.
When we rode into Krakow after having traveled the 55 mile route—this was the only day in Poland when it didn’t rain, and it was a beautiful ride through gorgeous countryside and eventually past the magnificent castle walls and into the city—when we rode in with Marcell Zelinski, who survived Auschwitz and had walked this same route at the age of 10 in 1945 hoping to find his family, and Greg Lemond, and Jonathan Ornstein and a host of new friends, it was an incredible moment to remember forever, and it was magnificent to share it with my son.
And then I rushed off to lead progressive Shabbat services for a couple of hundred enthusiastic folks at the Hi Synagogue. I entered a few minutes late, having had to shower (!) and dress before racing over. And the Polish student rabbi said, "It is customary to welcome the belated entrance of the Shabbat bride for Lecha Dodi--but tonight we welcome Rabbi Sam Cohon, having just finished the Ride for the Living."
The rest of the weekend was also fabulous, the capstone the astonishing concert at the conclusion of the Jewish Festival, 15,000 people enjoying the final outdoor celebration of revitalized Krakow Jewishness. It made evident the fact that Judaism is eternal and vital, and the Jewish spirit is indomitable.