Last December, retired NBA champion Ray Allen was named a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by then-President Barack Obama. Allen said he was honored to be named to the organization’s board and that he was looking forward to being “a vehicle for positive change and inclusion of all people.” But Allen has long been an advocate for Holocaust education, beginning with his days at UConn, and as a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks.
In a recent interview with ESPN’s The Undefeated, Allen talked about how Herb Kohl, the former owner of the Bucks, took him on a two-hour tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington during one of his first seasons in the league. “I was blown away,” said Allen. “I thought, ‘This is a place that everybody should go to.’ It’s just like one of those things that every kid should go to, every person that [if] you’re in D.C., you should come through this museum. And now, since then, the African-American museum had been built, and I believe the same thing about that museum. Both can teach the same lessons.” In fact, the visit apparently affected Allen so much that he’s made a point to take his teammates (on the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, e.g.) there ever since.
Last week, Allen, now a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, visited Poland for three days with a few friends. The trip was organized by Simon Taylor, a Boston-based rabbi who works at NCSY, a Jewish youth organization, and Jonny Daniels, the founder and executive director of From The Depths, a Holocaust preservation organization that’s run entirely by millennials.
Allen began educating upon arriving at the airport in Warsaw when he met a group of high school kids. He talked to them for 30 minutes, Taylor said, about everything from the Holocaust to basketball. “They asked him, ‘What’s the best opportunity you’ve ever had?’” Taylor recalled. “This trip,” Allen replied.
Allen’s schedule was jam-packed: He visited the former Warsaw Ghetto; met with the nuns from the Franciscan Monastery of the Maria Family, where over 750 Jews were saved during the Holocaust; ate dinner with a group of people deemed by Yad Vashem to be Righteous Among the Nations; watched The Zookeeper’s Wife at Warsaw Monastery; met with Moshe Tirosh, the last living survivor of the Zookeepers villa who was hidden there when he was 6; and visited Oskar Schindler’s factory in Kraków.
Allen, Taylor, and Daniels, along with others, also helped to rescue a Jewish headstone that was stolen during the Holocaust and used to build a home in the small village of Jozefow Nad Wisla. Later, Allen visited the kitchen in the home of the Skoczylas family in Ciepelow, who had built a small bunker under the floorboards during WWII. According to a press release, the family was caught attempting to hide Jews there and 12 members of the family were killed by the Nazis. Allen met with the grandson of the only surviving family member.
“He was on the phone the whole time Snapchatting his friends and family,” said Taylor. “It was important for him to be involved and to involve others. He literally Snapchatted the entire experience, getting nachas from all of his friends and family.”
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.