Sometimes, things come full circle.
Things being shorthand for huge historical cataclysms, family history, even to some extent poetic justice.
Maybe that’s a cheesy metaphor to use about a bike trip — wheels, circles, revolutions, all that — but it’s hard to avoid. Simone Hilfstein Scheumann of Nanuet thought about full circles as she pedaled from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi-run death camp in the verdant Polish countryside, to the JCC Krakow last month.
The Jewish community in Krakow, as elsewhere in Poland, is flourishing. “The purpose of the ride is to raise funds for the JCC Krakow’s programs, and also to make the world aware of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland,” Simone said.
Simone rode, both this year and last, in memory of her parents and grandmother, who survived the Holocaust; many of her other relatives, who did not; and the other Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz and in the other death camps during World War II. She also rode to celebrate the JCC Krakow and the resurgence of Jewish life and hope.
Simone’s parents, Max Hilfstein and Erna Kluger, were born in Krakow, into a Jewish world that was flourishing then as well. Although they didn’t know what was coming, of course, now we know what happened. They and their families were pushed into the ghetto, and on November 23, 1942, the two were married. “They were both very young — my father was 19 and my mother was 17 — and the marriage was an arrangement between both of their mothers, so that my father could take care of my mother,” Simone said. By then, the smell of death was in the air.
Max had a profession, though. “My mother was just finishing school in the ghetto, and my father had a family business. They were beauticians, and the family had a beauty salon and barbershop in the ghetto,” Simone said. By luck (if that word can be used in this context), the shop was in the ghetto, so it could keep going.
“My father made a video for Spielberg,” Simone said. (That, of course, is the filmmaker Steven Spielberg; the video was for the Holocaust film and video archives Mr. Spielberg created for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) “In it, he discusses how he became the beautician and barber for some renowned Nazis. Therefore he garnished a little — well, not kindness, more like an understanding — that if my mother was going to be taken out to be beaten, my father could lessen the severity of it.”
Soon the ghetto was liquidated, and Max and Erna, along with their families, were sent first to Płaszów, a slave-labor camp, and then on a death march to Auschwitz. Almost all of both of their families died, but Erna’s mother, Anna Schornstein — who had “been in Auschwitz earlier, and who spoke fluent German, was given a job as a stenographer and accountant, and worked in an office for some time” — also survived.
When they got to the United States, Max and Erna were able to resume their lives. Max “opened a beauty salon in lower Manhattan, on Avenue B and Sixth Street, and he owned one with a cousin in Haverstraw,” Ms. Scheumann said. “He taught his surviving cousins the profession.”
Her mother “was a very scholarly person,” she continued. The family on both sides had been “observant Jews, who kept kosher, but they were secular. I would call them Conservative to Orthodox, modern, not chasidic.” Before the war, Erna “went to Jewish school, but she also had a more worldly education than my father had.” Her main education came from a Catholic school; she learned the classics there. “The school accepted about one percent of the class who were Jewish,” she said. Her mother was in that one percent. But, of course, her education in Poland was cut short. She did not graduate from high school then.
“When she got to this country, my mother got a GED,” Simone said. “And then she got a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s, and then a Ph.D. in the history of science from City University. She was a Copernican scholar.”
The Hilfsteins settled in the Bronx. They lived in the Country Club section, which was not particularly Jewish. “My parents decided that they did not want to live in a ghetto again,” Simone said. “They did not want to lock themselves up. They were very involved in Jewish organizations, they were very Zionistic, they were very philanthropic, but they wanted to live among all kinds of people.
“My father’s very important mission was to educate people about what a Jew really is,” she continued. “He made it his business, when he met people, to say, ‘My name is Max Hilfstein, I am Jewish, and I hope you don’t have a problem with that.’
“They were very much advocates for the Jewish people.”
Simone, who has taught chemistry for 34 years, the last 25 of them at Tenafly High School, has gone to Poland “at least eight times,” she said. “Every time I get there, I light candles and pay my respects in the places where my family was murdered.” Then often she goes to Israel.
Simone also has begun to research her family’s history. “I have been able to trace my family’s roots to the mid-1700s in Krakow,” she said. “I’ve been doing genealogical research on both sides of my family. I’ve found many documents and photographs, and I feel a real link to the city.”
There are many archives left, she added. “When the war started, many archives were hidden, particularly in the larger towns,” she said. “Warsaw has a tremendous one, that basically was put underground during the war. And Krakow has a huge archive.
“I didn’t realize that before the war, Jews born in Krakow — and in other places in Poland — were registered. Their births, their deaths, their marriages, their divorces — they all were kept in separate, handwritten books. I was able to find my grandmother’s birth records, and my parents’.” She speaks Polish, so although the handwriting often was hard to decipher, the language itself was not a barrier. “My parents spoke Polish at home,” she added. “Yiddish — they just spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand it.”
When she heard about the bike ride, she felt compelled to do it; last year was her first ride. “I went this time with my brother, Leon Hilfstein, and my cousin, Liora Shelem, who lives in Israel. Her father was a Hilfstein; he was 14 when he was liberated from Auschwitz. The ride has tremendous meaning for all of us, so we decided to do it, in the memory of our families, the survivors and the ones who perished.”
Part of the motivation was memory, and another part was the future.
“There is misconception and stereotyping about Poland today,” Simone said. “Anti-Semitism still exists in Poland — and outside of Poland. That’s a very big discussion. But from my parents’ point of view, and from my own personal experience, I have met some fabulous people. Some very kind, giving people.”
The JCC in Krakow “has about 40 volunteers, all non-Jews,” for the bike ride, she said. “They prepare the food and man the desk. They do everything They are the best!” The bike ride drew about 160 participants, “Jews and non-Jews, and at least a number of them were young people,” she added. They included the chief rabbi of Warsaw and a rabbi from Krakow, as well as the director of the Krakow JCC. The youngest rider was 13, she added, and the oldest, a survivor, was 84. They came from around the world for the ride.
The JCC Krakow, which supported the ride, “has a growing membership of people who live in Krakow or its immediate vicinity,” she said. “Many younger people have found out, through various circumstances, that they are partially Jewish, and therefore they are going out of curiosity, to find out more. Many are converting.
“There is a new preschool that is opening,” she continued. “It is the first time since World War II that there is a new full-day Jewish preschool in Krakow.”
The JCC is just about 10 years old, but the New Krakow Friendship Society, which supports it, was founded more than 50 years ago. “My brother and I are involved with it, and my father was one of the founders,” she said. “The goal was education and philanthropy for Israel, and also to help the Jewish survivors who stayed in Krakow.
“Many survivors stayed there after the war,” Simone said. “We have been working to support them financially as they age. We also have been giving money for the rebuilding of some of the shuls, for the cleanup and maintenance of a cemetery that still is functioning.
“The whole idea is from ashes to rebirth,” she said.
Her feelings about the rebirth of the Jewish community in Krakow are straightforward, even though she knows that not everyone shares them. “Families that have suffered at the hands of the Poles have every right to feel the way that they do,” she said. Those families doubt that Poles have changed, and believe that their anti-Semitism is bone-deep and ineradicable. But “my family had a different perspective,” she said. “These are the things that we have to do to go on. We have to go on. We have to perpetuate the religion, the tradition, cement the culture in Krakow.
“There are Jewish children being born in Krakow now,” she continued. “There are young people in their 20s studying the aleph bet in classes at the JCC.
“The JCC is a very open, inclusive environment. They welcome Jews and non-Jews. They have huge Shabbat meals every Shabbat. It’s not a very big place — not like a usual JCC — but they have fit 200 people, using all the rooms, for Shabbat dinner.
The bike ride — a four-day, 55-mile trip that literally goes from the ashes of Auschwitz to the JCC — goes through Poland’s ironically verdant (or perhaps, given the rebirth, unironically but gloriously verdant) countryside.
Deciding to do the ride was a logical choice for Simone. “I was not a bike rider,” she said. “The first time I got on a bike was last year. I bought a bike about three weeks before I went on the ride.” Not only that, she added — Simone has Parkinson’s, so at first the idea was purely aspirational.
“But here’s the thing,” she said. “It’s all about motivation.
“My parents walked from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the winter.” It was a forced march. A death march.
“My mother laid down in the snow to die. She couldn’t go any further. And my father’s cousin picked her up and put her around his neck and walked like that, carrying her.
“So for me to be able to ride a bike — I might have some aches and pains, maybe, but they are insignificant.
“Last year, someone rode next to me, coaching me, to help me do it,” she added. “This year, I am in a little better shape, and on medication. So the Parkinson’s is just another obstacle to overcome.
“Right now, I’m sitting in bike shorts, upstate, in the summer place that was my parents’, that my brother and I share. I’m going to go out now to ride my bike. It is a very good psychological motivator. Riding is much better than sitting.”
It makes sense that they chose to summer there, she added. “The Polish countryside is beautiful, and it has a lot of similar trees and landscapes to what you see in upstate New York. It’s very lush. That’s why there are a lot of Polish people in the Catskills and the Adirondacks.
“My grandmother and my father used to collect mushrooms upstate,” she added. “They did it in Poland, and then they did it upstate. And now I do it too.”
“There are many obstacles that we all face,” Simone said. “What I face is insignificant compared to what my parents went through. I plan on doing it again next year. I hope that my brother will join me again, and that several other family members will as well.
What about her husband, Lee Scheumann? “I hope he will,” she said. “I am an optimist!”
There are satellite rides in other countries, she added. “People can ride along, or they can donate.” She wants to be at the real ride, though, with its complex mix of beauty and horror, of memory and longing and despair, of friendship, of family, of hope, and even, at the end, of exhilaration. “There’s a lot of camaraderie,” she said. Of course, the weather doesn’t always play along. “This year, there was some torrential rain along the way,” she said. “We always have an ambulance accompanying us, and medics following us. We have a police escort when we start, and when we go through Krakow’s streets.
“When we ride, we go through towns, and we go through the countryside. We get to see where our families walked, the fields they slept in. My cousin said that she imagines her father, walking, when he was 9.
“You don’t want to go too fast. You want to take it all in.
“At the end, we all got together so we could ride to the JCC en masse. It was so good.
“It was catharsis,” Simone Hilfstein Scheumann said. “I do a lot of volunteer work in the charity world, but this — this is dear to my heart.”