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Now on bike, Montreal survivor retraces trek home after Auschwitz

Marcel Zielinski cycles the route he walked 70 years ago in search of his parents in charity ride for Krakow’s retired JCC members

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Eighty-year-old Holocaust survivor Marcel Zielinski is an avid cyclist. (Courtesy)
Eighty-year-old Holocaust survivor Marcel Zielinski is an avid cyclist. (Courtesy)

The last time Marcel Zielinski traveled the 89 kilometers (55 miles) between Auschwitz and Krakow, Poland, it was January 1945. He traversed the distance on foot as a newly liberated 10-year-old death camp survivor going home in hopes of finding his parents alive.

On Friday, Zielinski, now 80, will make the same trip — only this time by bicycle. He will be participating in the Jewish Community Center of Krakow‘s second annual Ride for the Living, a fundraiser for Krakow’s community, and in particular its 100 Holocaust survivors. For Zielinski, however, the bike ride will be far more than a charity event. For him, it will be a journey into his past, to a place that holds for him both fond and fearful memories.

“It’s going to be very emotional for me, to say the least,” Zielinski told The Times of Israel from his home in Montreal as he prepared for his trip to Poland.

Before WWII, Zielinski lived with his parents in Krakow. In 1942, they were forced into the nearby Plaszow labor camp, which later became a concentration camp. In the summer of 1944, Zielinski and his parents were deported to death camps. Zielinski managed to survive the Gross-Rosen concentration camp and later Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a small group of children. His mother, who was liberated from the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, survived the war. His father, who was put on a death march by the Nazis, never returned. According to his son, there is no record of his death, and there were also no witnesses to it.

First annual Ride for the Living participants at starting line at Auschwitz, June 2014. (Jakub Włodek )
First annual Ride for the Living participants at starting line at Auschwitz, June 2014. (Jakub Włodek )

“I walked with some of the other kids I was with home to Krakow. I went to our apartment. I was 10 years old, so I knew where it was and how to get there,” Zielinski recounted.

“My parents weren’t there, so I was put into an orphanage run by the Jewish community. I got medical treatment for some problems I had, and I was even sent to a place in the mountains for recuperation and recreation,” he said.

Zielinski’s mother returned to Krakow in August 1945, and together they went to live with a cousin in a town in southwestern Poland. It was there that Zielinski started bicycle riding and racing—a pastime that turned into a lifelong passion.

Betzalel Zielinski of Rishon Lezion, Israel (right) will participate in the Ride for the Living with his father, Holocaust survivor Marcel Zielinski of Montreal, Canada. (Courtesy)
Betzalel Zielinski of Rishon Lezion, Israel (right) will participate in the Ride for the Living with his father, Holocaust survivor Marcel Zielinski of Montreal, Canada. (Courtesy)

“It’s my sport,” said Zielinski. The Holocaust survivor lived in Israel from 1958 to 1967 before moving to Montreal, where he worked as an engineer for aerospace companies until he retired in 1997.

With Zielinski’s son Betzalel, 56, and granddaughters Tamar, 31, and Chen, 27, coming from Israel to ride along with him on the Ride for the Living, it’s evident that the love of cycling has been passed on to the next generations.

Among the 80 riders expected to cycle the Auschwitz-Krakow route along with Zielinski and his family on Friday is Robert Desmond, whose October 2013 bike ride from London to Auschwitz inspired the Ride for the Living.

The British Desmond, 25, now lives and works as a freelance software developer in Katowice, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Auschwitz, and 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Krakow. Three years ago he took a “roots trip” to Poland together with his father.

“The magnitude of what happened here really hit me,” he said.

Desmond was moved to follow up the experience with a 25-day solo ride from London to Auschwitz via France, Luxembourg, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. The idea was to cycle across Europe, stopping at historical sites related to World War II and the Holocaust, with an emphasis on locations related to the liberation of Europe by the Allied forces.

Robert Desmond (left) at the finish line of the Ride for the Living in June 2014. (Courtesy)
Robert Desmond (left) at the finish line of the Ride for the Living in June 2014. (Courtesy)

At the end of the ride, Desmond reconnected with the Krakow JCC, where he had gone for Shabbat dinner while on his first trip to Poland in 2012. Desmond ended up staying in Poland indefinitely, and he and JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein came up with the idea for the Ride for the Living.

“Finishing the ride in Auschwitz didn’t seem right,” Ornstein told The Times of Israel. “Krakow is once again a place of Jewish life and hope. There would be a symbolic message to adding on the last leg from Auschwitz to Krakow. It would be a going from darkness to light.”

Last year, the funds raised by the first annual Ride for the Living (which drew 15 participants) paid for a trip to Israel for Holocaust survivors from the JCC’s senior’s club this past March. For many, it was their first time in Israel, and for some, it was their first time on an airplane.

“Israel exceeded all my expectations. I’m extremely happy I managed to make it to Israel because I never thought I would, and I had lost hope that I would ever go. I’m sure I would have never made the trip myself,” said retired economist Krystyna Mazur, 75, who survived the Holocaust thanks to a non-Jewish family in Krakow who took her in and who continued to raise her after the war.

Members of Krakow JCC senior's club at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, March 2015. (Ishbel Szatrawska)
Members of Krakow JCC senior’s club at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, March 2015. (Ishbel Szatrawska)

According to Ornstein, funds raised this year by the 80 riders from Poland, the US, Canada, the UK and Israel will go to cover JCC membership and activities costs for Krakow’s Holocaust survivors. Holocaust survivors constitute approximately 20 percent of the JCC’s 550 members. While only Jewish people can be members of the JCC, 8,000 people come through its doors every month, and more than 50 non-Jewish volunteers help run its activities.

Eighty-year-old Zielinski does not expect the ride from Auschwitz to Krakow to be physically difficult. Although he has had to lower his mileage in recent years, he still racked up an impressive 2,000 kilometers of cycling in the four months he spent riding this past winter with a club in Boca Raton, Florida.

“The cycling is not going to be the problem. The problem is going to be facing the Krakow Jewish community and reliving my experiences there,” he said.

For Zielinski, there are too many ghosts in Poland. But for Desmond, it is a place where he feels he can live, and where he finds himself to be more Jewishly involved than he was back in his native England.

“My foreseeable future is here in Poland,” he said.

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