This summer, two Jamaica Plain residents participated in Ride for The Living – a 60-mile bicycle ride from the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kraków, Poland. Sue Shenkman and Katka Reszke met for the first time at the starting line of the Ride, where some 200 local and foreign Jews and non-Jews gathered to commemorate Holocaust victims and survivors, as well as to support Jewish life in today’s Poland.
Auschwitz survivors Marcel Zielinski and Bernard Offen joined JCC Krakow Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein in officially opening the 5th edition of the Ride. Also among the riders was the famed three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. This was the 4th time for the 83-year old survivor Marcel Zielinski to arrive at the finish line. “He looked nowhere near as exhausted as most of us”, said Katka Reszke.
Beyond the one-day bike Ride, which raises funds for JCC Krakow, the annual Ride for The Living includes three additional days of cultural and educational programming. This year, the participants raised over $300,000 to support the JCC, which boasts 700 members, consisting of 4 generations of Jews – from Holocaust survivors to children at the center’s newly-opened preschool.
Shenkman, a nursery school teacher at Corner Co-op in Brookline, part-time faculty member at Showa Boston Institute for Language and Culture in Jamaica Plain and member of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, had long thought about visiting Auschwitz but felt that confronting the trauma and destruction of the Holocaust seemed too difficult. When she learned about JCC Krakow and Ride for The Living, during which she could visit the death camp and also engage with Poland’s modern-day Jewish community, the opportunity felt right. “While there, I spoke with several young Poles who found out they were Jewish in their teens and early twenties,” Shenkman said. “Now some of them are very active members of the JCC.”
Incidentally, Reszke, who was born and raised in Poland, also only began discovering her Jewish background in her teens. She writes about some of the complexities of being Jewish in post-Holocaust and post-Communist Poland in her book “Return of the Jew”, as well as in her upcoming project “The Meshugene Effect”. Unlike Shenkman, Katka had visited Auschwitz many times, both to participate in Jewish communal commemorations, and through her work as a writer and documentary filmmaker. “The Ride is different,” said Reszke. “It is there to commemorate, but also to celebrate and to contribute. This is what makes it so special. It is an unforgettable experience.”
“Katka and I were proud to ride through small villages wearing our Ride for The Living jerseys, supported by these amazing volunteers,” said Shenkman. “The back of the jerseys read: ‘Building a Jewish future in Krakow’”. Shenkman was surprised to see how many young non-Jewish Poles enthusiastically volunteer their time to the Ride and to support the JCC throughout the year.
For more than 15 years, Reszke’s visits back to Poland have also included participating in Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, arguably the largest festival of this kind in the world. Reszke, who holds a doctorate in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has actively participated in JCC Krakow’s festival programming since the center’s opening 10 years ago through lectures, film screenings, panels and debates. This year, Sue Shenkman and her husband Marc Gurvitch had the opportunity to attend a number of educational and artistic events at the Krakow JCC, including a series of presentations co-curated by Katka Reszke and the London-based artist Jacqueline Nicholls.
Shenkman also exchanged early education ideas and experiences with JCC Deputy Director, Anna Gulinska. JCC Krakow opened the first Jewish nursery school in Krakow since World War II last year.
This was the first time Sue and Marc traveled to Poland. Besides exploring Jewish life and culture in Krakow and Warsaw, they volunteered their time and skills to help Polish participants improve their English conversational skills through the program, Angloville. They enjoyed sharing about their experiences with the Jewish community in Krakow with the Polish participants and learning about their lives.
Their journey across the ocean was also an exploration of their Jewish roots and their ancestral homes in Lithuania and Belarus, where they visited the villages where their grandparents immigrated from. It was gratifying to see the locations they heard about from their grandparents, but also sad to witness the loss of Jewish life and culture after a 1,000 years of history.
Both Shenkman and Reszke agree that it is important to visit Auschwitz to honor those who died there, those who survived, as well as to prevent the tragedy from fading into history. Ride for the Living offers the opportunity to achieve these goals and more – it encourages the celebration of life and invites you to become part of a community reborn against all odds. “The revival of Jewish life in Krakow should not be underestimated,” JCC Krakow Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein said. “I’m in awe every day of what our members, our staff and our volunteers have built at the JCC. The overwhelming support of our Ride for the Living participants is vital, and it is meaningful.”
The sixth edition of the Ride for The Living will take place in late June 2019, offering 60-mile and 14-mile routes and the opportunity for cyclists of all levels to make a difference. Both Shenkman and Reszke hope to be there. Feel free to email them at [email protected] or [email protected] with questions or visit www.ridefortheliving.org. To learn more about Reszke’s work, visit www.katkareszke.com.
Sue Shenkman, Marc Gurvitch, Katka Reszke, and Jenny Friedland, former Director of External Relations, JJC Krakow, wrote this article.