During World War II, Milwaukee’s very own Harley-Davidson produced the U.S. Army’s Liberator, a motorcycle that soldiers drove into Holocaust camps to liberate them.
“Just imagine you’re a Holocaust survivor. You’re in a camp and you hear a motorcycle, and it’s not the Germans. It’s the Americans coming,” said Samantha Abramson, executive director at Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
The next chapter in the relationship between Milwaukee, motorcycles and the Holocaust will be written this summer when the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance holds its annual “Ride to Remember” event in town. More than 100 bikers are expected to ride through Milwaukee for the motorcycle rally to raise money for HERC during the event from June 8-11.
“With the rise of antisemitism, worldwide, it’s important to be front and center, and to be honest and truthful. And those who fail to look at history are doomed to repeat it,” said Steve Goode, one of the organizers. “We need to get the word out to the next generation.”
Each year, the organization of Jewish motorcyclists selects a Holocaust education institution in the United States to raise money for through a bike rally. In years past, the JMA has raised money for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the paper clip project in Tennessee, where students in a small town created a monument of 11 million paper clips, representing one for each person killed during the Holocaust.
“It all started when a few members of the Jewish Motorcyclist Association just stopped by our office one day unannounced and said, ‘Hey, we’re Jewish motorcyclists and we know about you and you do this really cool work,’” Abramson said.
The motorcycle organization is made up of cleverly named chapters throughout the United States, including the Hillel’s Angels in New Jersey, the Mazel Tuffs in Pittsburgh, and the Shul Boys in Cleveland.
“These Jewish motorcyclists descending on Milwaukee are your grandmas and grandpas, parents, aunts and siblings, children. They come from all walks of life,” Abramson said. “What brings them together is that they’re Jewish, they love motorcycles and they have a passion for Holocaust education.”
Abramson said that HERC staff helped local JMA members pitch the center to the national organization to be the benefactor for this year’s ride, focusing on the work it has done as the state provider of Holocaust education to all school children across Wisconsin after Act 30. The state law requires schools to expose students to Holocaust and genocide education at least once in middle school and once in high school.
“We’ve got to be picking up the torch and explain what’s going on and what happened,” Goode said, noting that education initiatives like this help combat misinformation about the Holocaust and those who deny that it ever happened.
The organization hopes to raise $50,000 through the rally for HERC, funds that will be used to continue the effort to provide Holocaust education.
“The risk is too great not to learn these lessons and not to inspire generations,” Abramson said. “We know how bad life can get and how many innocent lives can be lost, and how many futures can be ruined, when we don’t stand up to hate and when we don’t call out antisemitism and racism.”
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The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center is to benefit from a national Jewish event in Milwaukee.