Aliyah Riders’ Descendants Meet

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 8, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was first published in Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in 2003.

TEL AVIV, May 7 (JTA) — “When I was a boy, I heard the story of how my father came from Poland to Israel on a bicycle,” says Yoram Hadar, who lives in Ness Ziona, “but I didn’t know a lot of the story because I was only 10 when my father died.” Last week, 50 years after his father’s death, Hadar was able to put together the missing pieces. On April 27, Robert Zurawin, a cycling enthusiast from Texas, began a 270-mile ride across Israel, from Neve Shalom near Latrun to the Arava Institute near Eilat. The ride was co-sponsored by the Arava Institute, Hazon and the People to People project of the Jewish Agency. As part of its coverage of the ride, the daily Ma’ariv newspaper published an article about Zurawin’s father, who had ridden with a group of Jewish youths from Poland to Palestine in 1932. The newspaper included a photo of Zurawin’s father, standing next to some of the seven other riders in the group. When Hadar’s daughter opened Ma’ariv on Monday, she immediately recognized her own grandfather in the photo, and called her father in great excitement. Meanwhile, Israel Heled of Tel Aviv got a similar call from his son, and Shoshana Ido of Kfar Saba heard the news from her cousin. All three called the Ma’ariv reporter, who put them in touch with the Arava Institute. Zurawin, staying at the Holiday Inn in Ashkelon, invited everyone for a gathering that evening — which happened to be the evening of Holocaust Remembrance Day. “People came from pretty far away,” Zurawin says. “People were really freaking out. Most of these guys” on the ride from Poland “died fairly young. My dad was the oldest left alive.” Zurawin was not the only person at the reunion to say it wasn’t coincidental that the children and grandchildren of the riders found each other on Holocaust Remembrance Day. But Zurawin had felt a similar hand of fate when he and his son — named after Zurawin’s father Yerachmiel, or Raymond in English — signed up for the Hazon 2002 environmental bike ride in New York. The opening day of the ride fell on Zurawin’s father’s yahrzeit. Zurawin and his son recited kaddish before beginning the ride, with the ritual captured by local media. “It was one thing when we did it in the USA,” Zurawin recalls, “because it was just human interest. But in Israel, we didn’t anticipate that people would look at the article and find their own fathers.” The April 28 gathering was extraordinarily emotional for all who participated. Family members shared photo albums, passports and other documentation of the story of the ride to Israel 71 years before. “It closed the circle,” Hadar explains. “My children came with us. My son wrote down everything, and he wants to write a summary of the meeting.” Though the gathering closed one circle, it proved to be the beginning of another — a long-term reunion plan. For starters, Ido invited everyone to a second gathering at her home in Kfar Saba last Friday. Her 87 year-old uncle, Pessah Weinberg — the last living family member from the generation of riders from Poland — filled in the gaps in everyone’s knowledge, as three generations of children listened avidly. “My dad didn’t talk about the experience,” Heled recounts. Other reunion members had similarly silent fathers. “They just went straight into becoming sabras,” Ido explains. Between Weinberg’s emotional retelling of his brother’s journey and a pile of photos and documents collected at the gathering, families pieced together the full picture: In 1932, a group of religious and secular Zionists, aged 17-20 and active in the labor Zionist youth movement, decided that the future of the Jewish people was in the Land of Israel, not in Poland. They wanted to make aliyah, but the British were blocking Jewish entry into Palestine. All eight of these youth were athletic, so they created a cover story to get around British resistance: They claimed they were going to Palestine to participate in the Maccabi Games.  The Ludchnick bike company sponsored the youths, giving them bicycles and clothing to promote the company. They and the Polish government, however, insisted that the group ride around Warsaw for one week to ensure that the boys really were cyclists. After leaving Warsaw, the boys biked around Poland to spread the Zionist message, stopping at Jewish communities and publicizing their ride to Palestine. “These guys were admired,” Zurawin emphasizes. “People looked up to them as these great athletes. They didn’t just pick up and leave on their own; they were part of a program to inspire Zionist immigration.” Each Jewish community welcomed the group with parties, and community members sent them off with flowers, cheers and enthusiastic waves of goodbye. The boys didn’t realize they were saying a final goodbye to the Polish Jewish community, including their families. “They were living in the zenith of Zionism and Jewish culture in Europe,” Zurawin explains. “They never dreamed, in 1932, that the Holocaust would happen.” After leaving Poland, the youth biked around Europe and the Middle East for two months. Ido notes that they had little food and clothing with them. In case of emergency, they wore spare tires in a figure eight around their bodies. “They biked around without any escort,” Hadar says. “If we think about the long journey they went on in two months, it’s amazing. It’s something extraordinary. It’s not with today’s bikes and paths, which are much more comfortable.” The group passed through Czechoslovakia, Austria, Italy, Greece, Syria and Turkey. They had hoped to follow the route of a group that had left four years earlier, entering Palestine through Syria, but the Syrian government denied them entry. The boys arrived in Turkey with no money — but, luckily, there was a broken engine on the ship sailing to Israel.  “My father said to the captain, ‘I can fix the engine,’ ” says Ido, adding that her father was a talented mechanic. All the labor Zionist youth had been trained in machinery, as part of the dream to build up the Land of Israel with their hands, Zurawin says. In exchange for fixing the boat’s engine, the youth were given a free ride to Palestine. After a weeklong tour through the land, they dispersed. They never did attend the Maccabi Games. The original riders got together from time to time, but didn’t pass on contact information to their children. Once they died, the children lost touch. Now they’re determined never to let that happen again. “After the initial excitement sank in,” Zurawin recalls, “we asked ‘Where do we go from here?’ We definitely want to meet next year, make a bigger project — maybe re-create the entire ride itself, or parts of it, involve different organizations, bring the government back in, bring in Polish organizations.” “I feel that we found family,” Ido says emotionally. All the reunion members are eager to find the children of the remaining four riders, to make their family even bigger.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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