First Person | Religion & Jewish Life | World

Fifth annual Ride for the Living affirms Jewish vitality today — in Poland

Tucsonans Boaz Cohon (front left) and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon at the Ride for the Living in Krakow, Poland, June 29 (Rabbi Samuel Cohon)

This summer my son Boaz and I traveled to Poland for the great pleasure and privilege of participating in the Ride for the Living, a 55-mile bicycle ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau 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. The Ride for the Living is a remarkable event, this year celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Krakow JCC and its own 5th anniversary. It has grown from 15 riders in 2013 to over 200 riders in 2018, and our group included two Holocaust survivors and a three-time American Tour de France champion.

My son and I also traveled to Frankfurt and Prague on this journey, but our principal focus was Poland, where we visited Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk, places of tremendous Jewish interest. Two of my grandparents were born and grew up in Poland, and there was a thousand years of vibrant Jewish life in the country prior to the Shoah. In the 1930s Poland had more Jews than any other place in the world, 3 million people, roughly 10 percent of the entire population of the nation.

Until three years ago I had never had any desire to visit Poland. Most of what I knew about the country involved the hard life in impoverished shtetls, our people constantly plagued by anti-Semitism suffered at the hands of gentile Polish neighbors, with periodic brutality inflicted by invading Russians, Germans and Cossacks. Of course this was 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. Poland symbolized, for me, a Jewish graveyard, and there was no reason to visit it.

Then in 2015, during a sabbatical trip around the world, I attended the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp where 1.3 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. While the contemporary Jewish population was tiny compared to what it had been before the Holocaust and the subsequent 45 years of Communist repression, I found that now it was vibrant and deeply interested in reviving Jewish identity, spirituality and study. And surprisingly — stunningly — the young non-Jewish Poles I met were incredibly interested in Judaism and expressed that something important was missing in their country. 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 place of gorgeous old buildings from castles to cathedrals to 19th century palaces, with 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 tremendously fulfilling and exciting place. They helped Holocaust survivors, learned about Judaism, came to Shabbat and holiday dinners, were active and committed to the development of Jewish life.

That trip in January 2015 also was 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. It was January, so 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 much to see. There were so many things that seemed familiar and, well, remarkably Jewish, from food to music to art.

Last spring I asked Boaz if he was interested in a post-college graduation trip in which we would indulge 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. He wanted to see a 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 this visit we would be going in summer, when Poland is pleasant, 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.

We had an extraordinary time, exploring Warsaw and its phenomenal POLIN Museum, which traces 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland (it was voted European Museum of the year in 2016) 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 Jewish Festival events and concerts, and recorded some interviews for The Too Jewish Radio Show. Then we toured Auschwitz with the Ride for the Living group, and the next day participated in the ride itself.

There is no way to fully describe the solidarity of 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 — Bernard Offen, 88 years old, and Marcel Zielinski, 83. Both had walked out of Auschwitz when the Russians liberated it 73 years ago, Bernard at age 16, Marcel at 10. There were brief, moving speeches by those who originated the ride, and by Ornstein and Rabbi Avi Baumol of the JCC. The unexpected celebrity, Greg Lemond, three-time Tour de France winner, first American to win the most important cycle race in the world, rode with us and spoke about cycling’s 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 — it was an incredible moment to remember forever, and it was magnificent to share it with my son.

Then I rushed off to lead progressive Shabbat services for a couple of hundred enthusiastic folks at the High Synagogue. I entered a few minutes late, having had to shower and dress before racing over. 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 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.