By Suellen Kadis
I’ve just returned from a long and often grueling day on the second annual Ride for the Living, cycling from the darkness and death of Auschwitz to hope, light and Jewish renewal at JCC Krakow.
On Friday, June 4th, I stood at the gates of Birkenau on the railroad tracks where so many Jews were sent to their death. We listened to an Auschwitz museum official, the Chief Rabbi of Poland’s Rabbinic Representative in Krakow Rabbi Avi Baumol, JCC Krakow Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, and Auschwitz survivor Marcel Zielinski. Rabbi Avi shared with us a story describing how Jews seek revenge, not by retaliating, but by living and growing and rebuilding. The proof that against all odds, we are a resilient people was clear that day.
Our Ride for the Living included participants from the UK, US, Poland, Israel, Canada, and Germany. We ranged in age from 16 to 80. We were students, a rabbi, a nun, a counsel general of the US government, a Polish foreign ministry representative to the Jewish diaspora, doctors, entrepreneurs, and retirees. We came together to celebrate life! Most inspiring was Marcel Zielinski, who was just ten years-old when he was liberated from Auschwitz and walked back to Krakow to look for his parents. His son Betzalel and his granddaughters Tamar and Chen from Israel joined him. Three generations rode with us, tracing Marcel’s route 70 years later, from the ashes of the camps to a festive Shabbat dinner under the stars in the overflowing courtyard of JCC Krakow.
We biked 65 miles; through the Polish countryside to light candles, recite the Hamotzi, share a table with a growing thriving Jewish community, and listen to Mundek, a survivor, sing Yiddish songs from his childhood. We had pedaled hard all day, crossing railroad tracks more than once, reflecting on where those tracks had taken boys and girls, men and women, and struggled to complete our ride. The journey was hard. Each participant realized that if Marcel, Mundek and other survivors can endure the Holocaust, we have the opportunity, obligation, and privilege to continue the Jewish journey.
In the last two years I have visited Poland three times, witnessing the incredible work of the staff and volunteers at JCC Krakow. It is a gem in the Jewish world! Every day hundreds of visitors from around the world stop by on their way to the camps just down the road. With a growing community (550 members!), there are programs for people of all ages learning each day about living Jewishly. Survivors study Torah, young adults participate in community service projects in the Gimel Club, and the community comes together for weekly Shabbat dinners. There’s a thirst and hunger for Jewish life that’s evident when you walk in the door. Ride for the Living helps spread awareness of this small but vibrant community, raise critical funds for their programs, and remind us that despite the enormous challenges facing the Jewish world, there’s hope and a bright future ahead.
Suellen Kadis has been an active volunteer in the Jewish community for over 25 years. Currently she serves on the boards of Friends of JCC Krakow, 70 Faces Media (formerly JTA), ORT America, National Women’s Philanthropy (part of JFNA), and in Cleveland, Jewish Family Service Association, Gross Schechter Day School, and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. She participated in the inaugural 2014 Ride for the Living and the 2015 Ride for the Living.