At the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau last June, two men who had never met in person locked eyes.
“There wasn’t a need for words,” said Robert Desmond, 26, on meeting Marcel Zielinski, and 81-year-old Holocaust survivor. “We looked at each other with mutual admiration and hugged.”
The gates they stood before had personal significance to them both. On January 27, 1945, the day the camp was liberated, Zielinski, then 10 years old, returned to Krakow on foot. Nearly 70 years later, Desmond biked 1,350 miles from London to Poland, with the ambition of visiting commemorative World War II sites throughout Europe. And on that sunny June day, both men were about to embark on the Ride for the Living, a 55-mile group bicycle ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau—a place synonymous with death—to a home of thriving Jewish life, the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow.
“People think the Polish-Jewish journey ended in Auschwitz,” said Desmond, who did not anticipate his personal ride would evolve into a major fundraising event for an organization he is now an active member of. “The point of The Ride is that isn’t the case. Polish-Jewish life is still going strong and we as a people will continue.”
In 2014, 15 people rode with Desmond from Birkenau to Krakow. The 2015 event grew to include nearly 85 participants from around the world, which raised over $150,000, enabling a group of 30 Holocaust survivors to visit Israel; for some of them it was their first trip. The funds also helped launch educational programs and support medical and welfare services for the survivors.
The event, which occurs this year from June 2-5, is a riff on the annual March of the Living, which draws thousands from around the world to Poland to visit Holocaust-related sites, culminating in a “march” from Auschwitz to Birkenau, followed by a visit to Israel.
Organizers expect this year’s Ride of the Living to draw 120 attendees including Consul General Walter Braunohler, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, members of the Catholic community, as well as local and overseas members from around the world. In addition to the ride itself, participants can partake in various activities throughout the weekend, including Shabbat dinner with the local community and the annual 7@Night event on Saturday during which all seven synagogues in Krakow’s Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, remain open late.
“We feel the need to educate, pay respect to the survivors, and keep the story of the Shoah alive,” said Dany Weil, Health & Wellness Director of the Michael-Ann Russell JCC in Miami, who arranged a two-hour Satellite Ride for the Living spin class in 2015. This year, remote events will take place in a number of American cities in partnership with the JCC Association.
Throughout the solitude of his initial solo ride, Desmond questioned how survivors would react to his journey. He was pleased when many showed enthusiasm toward his initiative, including Zielinski, whose family has and will participate in the event with him. Desmond believes that cycling through Europe freely as a British Jew made a statement in and of itself. The success of Ride for the Living has given him a larger sense of purpose regarding the importance of educating people about Polish-Jewish history and contemporary Judaism in Poland.
“By cycling away from this place,” said Desmond, “we celebrate life.”