Most retired athletes spend their days counting their cash, gobbling up real estate, endorsing questionable brands, or making bad decisions. Ray Allen? He went to Auschwitz.
In a moving essay on The Players’ Tribune, Allen—the legendary retired shooting guard and the star of Spike Lee’s He Got Game, where he played the unimprovably named high school basketball phenom Jesus Shuttlesworth—reflected on what he saw in Poland.
Almost as good at turning a phrase as he is at shooting threes, Allen shared the story of his visit to the small town of Ciepielów. There, he had met a man named Tadeusz Skoczylas, whose family harbored six Jews in a tiny crawlspace in their small brick home. The Nazis eventually wised up to the subterfuge, and even though the Jews had managed to escape in time, Skoczylas’s entire family was executed. A small boy at the time, he was away for the day, and returned home to learn that everyone he had ever known or loved had been shot.
The trip, Allen wrote, was the culmination of a long-time fascination with the Holocaust, which began in 1998, when he was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. “I was in D.C. meeting our owner, Herb Kohl, over the summer,” Allen wrote. “We had some time free time on my last day in the city, and Mr. Kohl suggested we go to the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall. I’ll never forget how I felt after those two hours in there—I could have spent two days. My immediate feeling was that everyone needs to go there.”
Allen continued his studies on the subject, and, a few months ago, flew to Poland, where he visited Auschwitz and other sites. His trip wasn’t free of controversy: Attacking the player on social media, some argued that Allen had no business focusing on another people’s tragedy when his own people, black Americans, were being mistreated at home. Allen had no patience for such piffles, he writes: “I understand that there are plenty of issues in our own country right now, but they were looking at my trip the wrong way. I didn’t go to Poland as black person, a white person, a Christian person or a Jewish person—I went as a human being.”
It’s a message, he continued, that was only strengthened by his acquaintance with the Skoczylas family. Those brave Poles, Allen wrote, saw each person as a human being, “regardless of what they looked like, or what they believed. They thought everyone was worth protecting. And they were willing to die for it. That is something worth remembering, always.” Amen to that.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.