Cycling tour sets 2015 sights on Auschwitz

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Mere months after an emotional bicycle ride through Europe by a group of Ontario young adults – including a core of Chatham-Kenters – plans are underway for a 2015 edition.

Starting, of all places, in Auschwitz, Poland, where the Nazis exterminated more than a million people during the Second World War.

The 2013 Liberation Tour took riders through Normandy and other parts of northern France, into Belgium and then the Netherlands, culminating at the town of Markelo.

The cycling portion of the tour took nine days, but participants were in Europe for more than two weeks.

While the next tour focuses on the horrors undertaken by the Nazis, it will also end on a happy note in Markelo, where members of the Canada’s Essex-Kent Scottish Regiment helped repatriate the citizens in 1945. The tour will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation.

Gert-Jan Oplaat, one of the Dutch organizers of the tours, has visited Auschwitz. He told The Chatham Voice the sheer reality of what occurred there hits home as you enter the facility.

“The first one (bike tour) was all about the veterans, but this is about the Jewish people, the gypsies, the homosexuals, the intellectuals – they (the Nazis) killed everybody,” Oplaat said.

Chatham resident Dottie Laurie, a chaperone on this year’s tour, plans to go again in 2015.

“It’s going to be quite emotional,” Laurie said.

Oplaat agreed.

“Next time, we will see another part of the war; a terrible part,” Oplaat said.

While Auschwitz is the starting point, the 2015 tour will stop at the site of a Second World War Czech ghetto; the German city of Dresden, which the Allies essentially bombed off the map; and Berlin.

“Not even 25 years ago, the people of Berlin didn’t have freedom,” Oplaat said, referring to citizens of Soviet-controlled East Berlin.

He said this year’s tour took in such famous Canadian battlefields as Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach, Dieppe and Nijmegen.

The idea was to have 25 young Canadians and a like number of young Dutch citizens mesh, and appreciate the efforts of Canadian soldiers nearly 70 years ago.

“We did this to tell the young ones what Canadians did for our freedom,” he said. “For them, it (freedom) is normal. But for my grandparents, it wasn’t normal. Grandpa always taught us we should respect the Canadians for what they’ve done.”

The 2015 tour will again have space for 25 young Canadians and 25 young Dutch, with a few chaperones from each country on hand, Oplaat said.

Laurie said Chatham-Kent residents who want to go on the trip have to apply. Anyone who went on this year’s tour has the right of first refusal, meaning the spots for new participants for the 2015 tour could be limited.

Priority will be given to people who have a veteran in their family.

There is also an essay portion of the application, Laurie added.

To participate in the 2015 tour, or to just help out, Laurie urges people to contact her at iluvjuicy@msn.com.

Laurie said she’ll discuss the tour, and go into detail over her experiences in this year’s ride, at the Remembrance Day event at Branch 28 Legion Nov. 9.

Oplaat said a great deal of work is done at his end to pull off the cycling tours. He said this year’s adventure had the volunteer support of between 80 and 100 people, and sponsorship support of $120,000.

“All we had to do was get there,” Laurie said, adding several fundraising events to help with travel costs are done at this end.

Oplaat shrugs off all the fundraising and hours of effort.

“It’s done from the heart. It’s not work.”

Laurie said over the course of the 2013 tour, everyone came to understand what Canadian soldiers endured in 1944 and ’45. For some, it was the emotional impact of visiting an ancestor’s gravesite that no other family member had seen before. For Laurie, her trigger was just riding the bike – to the extent that she fell off.

“I was thinking about what the soldiers went through on the same path. It was so overwhelming that I simply forgot what I was doing,” she said.

To learn more about this year’s trip, visit the Frank Graham Cycle Liberation Tour 2013 group on Facebook.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Been to all those places. They will have a true awakening if they got to the Birkenau site and not the Auschwitz site which is just down the road.

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