Family takes emotional journey to seek roots, rebirth

Like grandfather, like granddaughter.

Though there is a 57-year age difference between them, both Sol Kutner and his granddaughter Lisa Rozakis had a similar reaction to their recent journey to Poland and Israel.

“I’m glad I went” to Poland, Kutner said, “but I’d never go back.”

Said Rozakis: “All I wanted by the end of Poland was to get out of Poland.”

The two were part of a group of 11 family members who took part in a national mission last month to Poland and Israel with the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Kutner and his wife, Rosalind, serve on the regional board.

Poland was added to the itinerary as an enticement, explained David Cohen, the organization’s regional director, to make the trip to Israel more attractive to frequent visitors of the Jewish state.

The 11 members of the Kutner family came from the East and West coasts as well as the Midwest, and they joined a national group of approximately 75 Shaare Zedek supporters.

Joining Sol and Rosalind Kutner of San Carlos were their daughter Susan Rozakis and her daughter, Lisa, both of Atherton; Sol Kutner’s brother Sam Kutner of Bayonne, N.J.; his son Keith and his two children, Robert and Sarah Kutner of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; niece Celia Connor of Swoyersville, Pa.; and nephew Michael Kutner and his daughter Lauren from Bensalen, Pa.

And while the entire Shaare Zedek group went to Poland, the Kutner clan — ranging in age from 19 to 77 and all decked out in identical blue jackets — arrived four days early to visit the place where Sol and Sam Kutner’s parents came from.

For Sol Kutner, it was a highly emotional journey. Speaking of his parents, both immigrants from Poland who each lost most of their relatives in the Holocaust, he said, “In all the years, they rarely talked about Poland, and when they did, they never had anything nice to say about it. If my mother knew I went to Poland,” he said, “she’d roll over in her grave.”

Imagining his parents walking in the same streets as teenagers and going to their synagogue, was very emotional for Kutner.

Kutner noted that as the group numbered 11 — enough to make a minyan — they said Kaddish whenever they came upon a mass grave or cemetery.

When the group was together with the Shaare Zedek mission, they visited Auschwitz and Maidenek. And while both were incredibly difficult, what the group witnessed at Maidenek moved them to tears: A group of more than 100 Israeli Defense Forces officers holding a ceremony to honor the dead. The group’s tour guides said this was only the second time they had seen such a ceremony.

The group watched as the soldiers sang songs and read poems, and some talked about family members they had lost, though it all had to be translated. All of this took place in front of a mausoleum containing the ashes of thousands of Jews who were killed there.

“Here we are in 2004, standing in front of this crematoria with this modern state of Israel army singing ‘Hatikvah,'” Kutner said. “We couldn’t even get the words out.”

As hard as it was to be in Poland, going to Israel from there was like “going to heaven from hell.” Kutner believes their visit to the Jewish state was important, to show others that it’s not at all dangerous.

While Rozakis said she was really grateful to be able to join her grandfather on this trip, especially since the Polish leg of it was so difficult, she also was amazed at how good it felt to arrive in Israel afterwards.

“It was so full of life, and so welcoming,” she said. “I felt like I was coming home.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."