After Sheryl Olitzky returned home to North Brunswick from her first visit to Poland in 2010, she was determined to go back and take other Jews along with her.
“The trip had a huge impact, and I knew that I had to act upon it. I had to expose as many people as possible to Poland,” she told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 20 telephone interview. “You don’t understand the magnitude of the Holocaust unless you are personally walking in footsteps to see what the Jewish community was prior to the Holocaust.
“In every step you take down every road, you see significant parts of the Jewish communities that were destroyed.”
Two years later, Olitzky organized and led another trip to Poland — this one for 36 people, ranging in age from 16 to 88, and most from Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
She and her husband, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, are temple members.
What she found in an intense week-long journey from Aug. 7 to 14 were some dramatic changes from what she observed two years ago.
“What has changed is the acknowledgement that the Holocaust occurred and that the Jews were killed. Every year there is more and more acknowledgement,” she said. “I absolutely believe there is anti-Semitism there, but there is a lot being done to increase Jewish awareness and Jewish life.”
Olitzky said the group met with many newly identified Jews whose parents or grandparents were hidden during the war and who have only recently discovered that their forebears were Jews.
“They are trying their best to be practicing Jews, and their numbers are growing,” she said.
An estimated 20,000 Jews live in Poland, showing signs of a spreading renaissance after the Nazis’ decimation of three million Jewish Poles in World War II.
Beyond recovering their personal roots, the Jews of Poland are rebuilding a communal infrastructure with considerable help from many of their non-Jewish fellow citizens. The visitors from central New Jersey saw synagogues, Jewish museums, and a Jewish Community Center that are flourishing in Warsaw and Cracow.
“What is startling is that essentially, the custodians of Jewish life in Poland are essentially non-Jewish,” said the temple’s Rabbi Elliot Malomet, who accompanied the group. “If you go to the places where they renovated synagogues and created museums, invariably the custodians and directors are not Jewish. The universities that have Jewish studies departments are overwhelmingly populated by non-Jews.
“What I make of that is it is a curiosity. Here are a significant number of people who are themselves searching for something and trying to answer some basic questions, perhaps related to their own identity or their own secrets in the closet.”
In addition to museums and other sites in cities, the group visited the concentration camps at Treblinka, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Maidanek, and Plaszow.
In the town of Tykocin near Treblinka they visited a synagogue and a museum, as well as a nearby forest where Jews were murdered during the war.
“There were hundreds of these sites throughout Poland and there seems to be a trend to rehabilitate some of these sites,” said Malomet. “Poland wants to take ownership of its Jewish past. There has been an awakening over the last few years that this Jewish heritage is really part of Polish heritage and on every occasion where we experienced Poles, there was a lot of graciousness.”
Olitzky found a troubling side to the Poles’ newfound concern for the history of Jewish suffering in their midst.
“I got the feeling, especially in Cracow, which is near Auschwitz, that the Poles are commercializing the Holocaust,” she told NJJN. “Tour companies flash neon signs saying ‘Tour Auschwitz,’ and there are little trams that advertise on their sides ‘Tour Auschwitz’ or ‘Tour the Jewish quarter’ or ‘Tour the salt mines.’ They are making money on the Jews who were killed. It offends me. It has turned into a money-making industry at the expense of the three million Polish Jews who were killed.”
Olitzky said she also noted that “signs of anti-Semitism are significant. The Poles sell things they call ‘Jew dolls,’ which are overtly Jewish men with very big noses carrying moneybags. A few years ago the dolls could be found only in airport gift shops, but now I found them everywhere. The Poles will say they are not anti-Semitic but cultural, and consider them a good luck symbol. I find them to be very anti-Semitic.”
And yet she believes it is critical for American Jews to visit Poland.
“We have very few living survivors. We need to see it first-hand to truly understand what happened. We have a responsibly to visit the burial sites and pay respect to people who have no one to pay respect to them, and we need to make changes in the world so that this doesn’t happen again.”