Krakow rides for the living and celebrates Jewish life in Poland

Krakow rides for the living and celebrates Jewish life in Poland

In 1945, when the Nazis were defeated and World War II came to a tragic close, Marcel Zielinski set out on foot from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and walked back to his hometown of Krakow.

Marcel Zielinski at Auschwitz

Marcel Zielinski at Auschwitz

Seventy-one years later, Zielinski was back at Auschwitz, but this time as one of the 150 participants in the third annual Ride for the Living.

The fundraising event, established in 2014 by the Krakow Jewish Community Center as a kind of cycling version of the well-known March of the Living to Auschwitz, consists of an 8-hour, 55-mile ride through the Polish countryside – from the horrors of the infamous death camp to the vibrant resurgence of Jewish life that is today’s Krakow.

Shavei Israel’s emissary to Poland Rabbi Avi Baumol accompanied Zielinski on the ride this year. Standing there together was profoundly moving, Rabbi Baumol says, “for me and for all 150 people there to see first hand the tenacity and resilience that is the Jewish people.”

The Ride for the Living was inspired by Robert Desmond, a London-based long distance cyclist who in 2013 set out to trace his family’s “liberation path” in reverse: from London down to the Normandy D-Day landing beaches in France, across to Paris, into Germany and then to the Czech Republic before finishing up at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Following the 1,350-mile month-long journey (which he blogged about here), Desmond ended up in Krakow where he met and became fast friends with Rabbi Baumol. Desmond fell in love with Krakow and he wanted to demonstrate to the world what was happening in Poland.

The Ride for the Living has been a huge success, this year raising $200,000 for the JCC’s activities. Rabbi Baumol is the JCC’s rabbi.

“You can break our bones, destroy our communities and seek to eradicate our memories but we will still survive, we will continue to build,” Rabbi Baumol wrote after last year’s Ride.

Paul Schneller is a Jewish photographer from the Netherlands who is writing a book about the revival of Jewish life in Krakow. He took some amazing photos of the Ride for the Living. Here’s a selection:

The ride participants ended by sharing a meal together in the Isaac synagogue of Krakow. Here are a few photos:

The Ride for the Living, which took place in June, kicked off a remarkable two months for Krakow’s Jewish community which culminated with the city’s annual Jewish Culture Festival. The week long event – now in its 26th year – attracts 20,000 people – mostly non-Jewish Poles – who want to learn more about Jewish history in Poland.

The festival includes music (klezmer and cantors), movies and classes. The JCC alone had 85 events during the week. Rabbi Baumol led a series of lectures on Jewish history and tradition over the course of the festival called “They Tried to Kills Us, They Failed, Let’s Eat.” Rabbi Baumol even gave a few lectures in Polish. (“It’s getting better,” he says.)

Most of the people who attended were not Jewish, Rabbi Baumol adds. “That so many people are coming to study Torah from a rabbi is a reflection of the great curiosity and respect the younger generation of Krakovians have towards Judaism and Jewish heritage.”

On the Friday night of the festival, 520 people celebrated Shabbat together – the biggest Sabbath dinner in Krakow since the end of WWII. Here are some pictures.

Another popular Jewish event in Krakow held during the spring is “The Night of the Synagogues.” All seven of Krakow’s shuls are opened to the public beginning at 10:00 PM. Thousands of Krakovians packed the streets of the Kazimierz – the old Jewish quarter – to learn more about their city’s long Jewish history.

“Krakow has an infrastructure ready for 70,000 Jews,,” Rabbi Baumol says. “There are shuls and mikvehs and kindergartens and kosher food. We’re just waiting for the people now.”

The Night of the Synagogues starts with a festive havdalah service. Here’s a picture of Rabbi Baumol leading the ceremony.

Havdalah has become one of Rabbi Baumol’s trademarks in Krakow. He is often called to speak to non-Jewish groups visiting Krakow. “My position is not only to help enhance and revive Jewish life in Krakow, but to serve as an ambassador of Jewish history and tradition to the world,” he explains. If the groups come over the weekend, Rabbi Baumol will lead havdalah for them – sometimes in the courtyard of the JCC and sometimes from its roof. Here’s a picture:

We have one more selection of photos – all taken by Paul Schneller – of Jewish life in Krakow. The prayer photos are taken at the Isaac synagogue. The photo of Rabbi Baumol with a pair of scissors if from an upsherin, the traditional first haircut of a three-year-old Jewish boy.

Next year’s Ride for the Living will be on June 30, 2017 and will be take place at the same time as the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. Book your tickets now!

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Brian Blum
Brian Blum
brianblum@gmail.com