Going backward from hell doesn’t make hell go away. It doesn’t undo the past. It doesn’t change much.
Also, it changes everything.
Lynda Kraar of Englewood (and before that, for many years, of Teaneck, and before that of many places, and before that of Toronto, where she grew up) knows that. She’s the daughter of Holocaust survivors — the clear-eyed, unsentimental, occasionally rage-filled daughter of Holocaust survivors.
She didn’t ride a bicycle from Auschwitz to Krakow to prove anything, but she was there to maybe, for just a minute, to fix something.
Ms. Kraar is a consultant who has worked with many nonprofits, including the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. (Much of that work was done with her late husband, Marty Kraar, who had worked for many Jewish organizations and headed some of them before he and Lynda started Kraar Associates.) “That’s how I got involved in this particular ride,” she said. She was talking about the Ride for the Living, the 55-mile daylong ride from Auschwitz to the JCC of Krakow, a ride that reverses the trip through the death camp’s hell gate, with its lying slogan, “Work Sets Your Free,” radiating malice, even 73 years after it was liberated. The ride goes through the lovely, bucolic Polish countryside to the JCC, and to the Jewish Culture Festival that spills through the ancient city, with sounds of klezmer and joy at the same time.
Ms. Kraar grew up riding a bicycle. It was the way she and all her friends, mostly survivors’ kids, got places. “That was the mode of transportation,” she said. “Our parents worked hard. We were latchkey kids. We rode bikes.”
As a young mother, she continued to ride; she remembers biking from her house in Teaneck to take her younger daughter, Yona McGraw, to the Teaneck Charter School. She’d ride to Votee Park next, and then later she’d bike back to school to pick Yona up.
Still, she hadn’t considered anything like a 55-mile ride over Polish roads until last year.
At that time, she and her older daughter, Miriam Borden, who is working toward a doctorate in Yiddish at the University of Toronto, went to Poland together. It was last summer’s Jewish Culture Festival, and it was exhilarating, Ms. Kraar said. It’s in Kazimierz, the part of Krakow that once was Jewish, and it is a celebration of all that was vital and explosive and life-affirming and had been stomped underfoot but as it turned out not killed. The annual nine-day festival, featuring concerts and performances and lectures and food and chance encounters and unexpected learning, was started by a non-Jew, Janusz Makuch, who fell in love with Jewish culture and wanted to share that love with the world.
When she was in Krakow last year, Ms. Kraar ran into a woman, a friend from Cleveland, who had just finished the ride. “She said, ‘You should do this next year,’ and the more I read about it, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that this sounds like something I could get behind,” Ms. Kraar said. “If for no other reason than to cleanse my soul.
“At the end of the war, a few days before it ended, my father and two friends walked out of Auschwitz,” she said. “They went to Krakow. They wanted to see what was left.
“My dad was really a tough case,” Ms. Kraar added. Her father, Abraham Siedlecki, had been a boxer; as she wrote in a story, “The Items,” we published in the Jewish Standard last year, “My father was not acquainted with anger management.”
Clearly, if you were likely to respond to injustice or even frustration with fury before being imprisoned in a concentration camp and having your entire family slaughtered, you were unlikely to have learned restraint during that experience. (Nor, to be clear, should you have.) He was not an easy parent, she said; nor was her mother, Chana Frajlich, who survived the war not in a camp but in a Siberian gulag. Their relationship was not easy. Her childhood was not easy.
“What those guys lived through was insane,” she said. “And I wanted to dispense with the drama.
“I wanted to cleanse myself.”
So, she said, “I decided that I would do it. I signed up for the trip.”
She spent some time at the festival first. “It’s like Aspen,” she said. “You see everybody.” The ride and festival “overlap, but they’re separate things,” she said. “The festival is like Polish Jewish University. The theme this year was Zion. There were thousands of people for the concert the final night. On Friday night, there was a dinner. It was right after the ride – you clean up and go and there are 650 people there, including groups from all over the place.
“The ride is part of the JCC Krakow, which is a Jewish community center with no track and no pool but activities for the local Holocaust survivors, including a full-day program for them, and a new school, and all sorts of other activities.”
The bike ride comes with four days of events, but the ride itself is just one very full day. “It’s like a multiday comprehensive program,” Ms. Kraar said. “It includes a visit to the camp, with specialists who take you through in small groups. The day before the ride there is a meet-and-greet dinner. The next morning, you get up at 6, you get an orientation, you get on your bus.” It’s about an hour to Auschwitz from Krakow, she said.
There were about 200 people riding this year. “There were two Holocaust survivors, and one of them was 83,” Ms. Kraar said. “One of the survivors had a granddaughter who was in from Israel and she rode with us.” The youngest rider was a teenager.
Most but not all of the riders were Jewish. The chief rabbi of Poland, New York-born Michael Schudrich, joined them. “He is an awesome guy,” Ms. Kraar said. “He is a real defender of the Jewish people.” The group also included non-Jews, among them Greg Lemond, the great American cyclist who won the Tour de France three times.
Ms. Kraar rode for about 40 of the 55 miles; she took a bus for part of the last third, and then rejoined the group for the triumphal entry into Krakow.
“The ride took about 5 1/2 hours,” she said. “It was a very interesting transformation. “You start at the gates of Auschwitz, and it was kind of surreal. Everybody is pretty uplifted.
“And then you start riding. It’s kind of like ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ You have to say to yourself ‘I have to store my energy.’ You have to not over-train before you do the ride, because in the end it is just a bike ride. At the end of the day, there is a mundane aspect to it. You are getting on a bike and going for a ride.”
On the other hand, this wasn’t just any old ride.
For one thing, it was beautiful. “We took a lot of backwater country roads,” Ms. Kraar said. It had rained for days before – the forecast was for more rain the Friday of the ride, but instead it was gorgeous, sunny, not too hot, not too cold, just sparkling. But because it had rained, “we rode a few miles through mud, and there were people falling off their bikes, getting a little bit cut up. It was slippery.” But once past the mud, “it was beautiful.
“There were wildflowers,” she continued. “The setting looked like everything you’d heard about from your elders. There were berries and mushrooms and beautiful little flowers everywhere. When we through these little hamlets, people came out to their gates and they applauded us, yelling ‘Bravo’ at us, cheering us on.”
The roads were closed to traffic, she added. “We rode around traffic circles, on some bigger paths but mostly on bike paths, smaller roads, even some dirt roads.”
And then “we came to Krakow. It was an unbelievable feeling. We had all bunched up together, and any biker will tell you that that’s the worst. You bump into other bikers. But we went at a very slow pace. We got to the Vistula, and we all rode on one narrow, beautiful bike path, and then we rode over a bridge, and then through the old city of Krakow, through Kazimierz,” which always was beautiful if you like very old cities and now has become trendy, artsy, the place to be in Krakow. “You ride through the streets, and when you do that you see a lot of normal people doing normal things – going to dinner, going to a bar, looking at the beautiful architecture, and here all of a sudden they see 200 people on bikes.
“You see them start to applaud you.
“And then you get to the gates of the JCC – some people were able to ride through the gates, and the rest of us parked our bikes outside them and walked through – and there were people cheering and balloons and refreshments.
“And the minute I crossed the finish line, I said to myself, ‘Dad, we did it. We made it.’”
What would her father have thought of the ride? “He would have thought it was crazy,” Ms. Kraar said immediately.
And then she paused. “He would have thought it was crazy – but he was a boxer,” she said. “I think he would have appreciated the physicality of the ride.”
She told a story her father told, about how he had left Auschwitz and soon he and his two friends, in their striped camp pajamas, as Ms. Kraar called them, found themselves sitting in a dead silent train. “There was a Russian guy, in uniform, sitting across from them,” Ms. Kraar said. “He got off the train. Just before he got off, he looked at my father, and said ‘Be successful,’ in Yiddish. ‘Go get ’em.’
“I never forgot that story.”
That day on the train, like every day of his life after it was tattooed on his arm, Ms. Kraar’s father wore his number. It was 111855. “That was my number for the ride,” Ms. Kraar said. It was on her badge as she rode out of Auschwitz, and it was on her badge as she rode into Krakow.
Ms. Kraar plans to do the Ride for the Living again next year. She hopes to ride all 55 of it miles then, and she has many friends who say that they are at the very least thinking seriously about joining her then. Just as it cleansed her souls, it will cleanse theirs, she said.
There’s information about the ride at www.friendsofjcckrakow.org, and about the Krakow Jewish Festival at www.jewishfestival.pl/en.