Local cyclists and community activists Kristen and Matt Keller are headed to Poland for a 55-mile bike ride from Auschwitz to Krakow. For the Kellers, completing the distance is an opportunity to put past and present in tandem.
“Matt and I are both very community focused in Pittsburgh. The Jewish community has been a mainstay in our lives, and to see a Jewish community that is rebuilding after such tragedy is really appealing to us. We want to support and encourage that growth,” said Kristen.
In pedaling from Auschwitz to Krakow, the Kellers will be joining nearly 200 fellow cyclists in the Ride for the Living, a four-day event scheduled between June 28 and July 1. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, RFTL enables participants to “celebrate Jewish life in Poland” by overlapping with the Jewish Culture Festival, an annual event — this year taking place June 23 to July 1 — welcoming nearly 30,000 people.
Although some time will be spent on the saddle, much of the Kellers’ stay will revolve around learning more about Krakow’s rebirth, explained Kristen. “It’s amazing that the community is coming back from such tragedy and such destruction.”
Krakow, whose Jewish presence dates to the 13th century, experienced a fluctuation in Jewish residents during the 20th century.
According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, a project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “on the eve of the war some 56,000 Jews resided in Krakow…By November 1939, the Jewish population of Krakow had grown to approximately 70,000.”
Those figures starkly contrast with later counts, as following World War II, “some 4,282 Jews resurfaced in Krakow.” Although that number shortly swelled to 10,000, “pogroms in August 1945 and throughout 1946, as well as [a] number of murders of individual Jews led to the emigration of many of the surviving Krakow Jews. By the early 1990s, only a few hundred Jews remained.”
In the news you hear so much about the bad, especially in Europe and Poland you hear about the anti-Semitism, and yet there is this growing thriving community in Krakow, and I want people to know it exists.
More recently, the Jewish population has rebounded.
Currently, the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, has 700 Jewish members. Constituents of the communal hub enjoy stratified offerings, such as adult activities including lectures on “great Polish-Jewish leaders”; courses on Torah study and Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish language meetups; children’s programming, such as Sunday school, a nursery and student club; and daily opportunities for seniors, like sewing, culinary workshops or playing bridge.
The cumulative endeavors underway at the JCC Krakow represent a revival, explained Matt.
“It’s life and it’s growth,” added Kristen, who explained that visiting Krakow has long been on the couple’s radar.
“My parents traveled to Poland in fall of 2015 and they stumbled upon the JCC in Krakow,” she said. The holiday of Sukkot was approaching “and the JCC was putting up their sukkah.”
During that trip, Kristen’s parents met Jonathan Orenstein, executive director of Krakow’s Jewish Community Center, and learned of RFTL. One year later, Matt toured the JCC Krakow while on a mission with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. His positive impression of the place and people mirrored Kristen’s parents’ perceptions.
“They both said it was amazing,” recalled Kristen.
So while considering avenues to return, the Kellers realized that RFTL provided a perfect path.
“We are able to combine our passions of Jewish community and getting out and being physical,” said Matt.
Like many of their fellow riders, the Kellers are committed to raising money to support Jewish life in Poland. While the collective cause has netted $107,000, “Team Keller” helped secure $2,200. Those interested in learning more about their fundraising efforts can visit jcckrakow.kindful.com/ride-for-the-living-2018/team-keller.
Spending one day on a seat and others alongside fellow Jews represents something much larger than themselves, explained Matt.
“It is definitely very symbolic,” agreed Kristen, who noted that exiting Auschwitz for Krakow represents “leaving darkness and death and heading toward light and life.”
It is also a chance to dispel myths and counteract behavior, said Matt.
“In the news you hear so much about the bad, especially in Europe and Poland you hear about the anti-Semitism, and yet there is this growing thriving community in Krakow, and I want people to know it exists and they are family and we should be there to encourage them, support them and continue to grow and fight what the trend seems to be in Europe right now.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.