Former UConn Husky is on a mission to bring Holocaust education to all
By Judie Jacobson
In a recent interview with ESPN’s The Undefeated, basketball superstar and former UConn Husky Ray Allen talked about the time early in his career that Herb Kohl, former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, took him on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I was blown away, I thought, ‘This is a place that everybody should go to,” he said. “It’s just like one of those things that every kid should go to, every person that [if] you’re in D.C., you should come through this museum.”
And to ensure that they did, in the ensuing years the retired NBA champion has made it a point to take family, friends – even teammates – to the museum.
In September 2016, in accepting the Anti-Defamation League of Greater Hartford’s Torch of Liberty Award, the ten-time NBA All-Star and and Olympic gold medalist said every time he looks at his own NBA championship ring, it reminds him of the gold ring Oscar Schindler received from the Jews he helped save during the war, and how Schindler broke down with regret that he could have saved even more.
Allen, who was named a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in December 2016, visited Poland for three days in early May, on a trip organized by Rabbi Simon Taylor of Boston, who is the New England director of NCSY, a Jewish youth organization, and Jonny Daniels, the founder and executive director of From The Depths, the only Holocaust preservation organization run entirely by millennials. The trip was also co-sponsored by LOT Polish Airlines.
Allen’s schedule was jam-packed:
“It says so much about Ray that after his official retirement, this was the first trip he wanted to take,” says Taylor, who travelled with Allen. “We toured and talked and took it all in for 15 hours a day, and Ray just didn’t want to stop. As a man who is clearly sickened by any type of discrimination and prejudice, he is passionate about both learning and teaching the horrors of the Holocaust.”
“We are witnesses of the witnesses and our generation is the last that will have the opportunity to speak to Holocaust survivors, so we have to make sure their message continues for generations to come,” says Daniels.
On the first day of his visit Allen visited the sites connected to the Warsaw Ghetto, met with the nuns from the Franciscan Monastery of The Maria Family where more than 750 Jews were saved during the Holocaust, spent time with a group of Righteous Among The Nations, and visited Warsaw Zoo where 300 Jews were saved. He met with the last living survivor of the Zookeepers villa, Moshe Tirosh, who was hidden there as a six-year-old. From there he saw the movie “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” along with 67 nuns.
“These people are true heroes, the best of the best,” Allen said after his meeting with the Association of the Polish Righteous Among The Nations. “Everyone would like someone to fight for them and my family if they were put in an inhumane situation. To do such a thing you don’t have to have any personal connection – you have to be human.”
“Watching ‘The Zookeepers Wife’ in Warsaw, literally 20 minutes after standing myself in that exact villa where the Zabinski family saved 300 Jews, along with one of the survivors, is something that I wish everyone could experience,” says Allen. “It put everything in context and made it so much more powerful.”
The next day, Allen toured Auschwitz-Birkenau and met with Polish Jewish leaders from TSKZ, Poland’s largest Jewish organization.
“Being in Auschwitz and walking the ground, was like nothing you could ever comprehend. It gave me a better understanding of the heartbreaking horrors that took place there,” he said.
On his final day in Poland, Allen joined the Matzeva Project to help recover a Jewish matzeva (tombstone) stolen by the Nazis and used to build a home in the Polish village of Jozefow Nad Wisla. Sponsored by From The Depths, the Matzeva Project aims to help preserve more than 1200 Jewish cemeteries and millions of Jewish tombstones in Poland.
“Returning this tombstone to where it belongs, to a Jewish cemetery that has been barren of memory for over 70 years brings back a level of dignity to this site,” said Daniels, noting that the help of a “global superstar will give millions of people all over Eastern Europe who may know the whereabouts of such artifacts the push they need to bring forward more information.”
Allen also visited a small bunker under the floorboards of the kitchen of the Skoczylas family in Ciepelow. Caught hiding Jews, 12 members of the Polish family were burnt alive by the Nazis. Allen met with the grandson of the only surviving family member.
“Crouching down in that cold, dark, damp hiding place was a feeling I will never forget,” says Allen. “I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the Jewish family hiding in such a place or for the Polish family risking their own lives to hide them.”
Taylor, who runs similar trips for teens, hopes Allen’s visit will inspire more young people to learn more.
“Visiting these sites and people alongside a champion like Ray Allen, whose passion runs deep and who is a hero to many, gives us an opportunity to reach so many people and educate them both on the horrors of this time and what it means to be a hero today,” says Daniels. “The emotional connection of being on the ground and seeing these sites first-hand is something that will remain with him for a lifetime. The message of the Shoah, is never again, not only for the Jewish people, but for so many others being persecuted today.”
CAP: NBA champion and former UConn Husky Ray Allen at Auschwitz.