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Sigmund Rolat, Who Used His Wealth to Memorialize Polish Jews, Dies at 93


Sigmund Rolat, Who Used His Wealth to Memorialize Polish Jews, Dies at 93


Sigmund Rolat, a Polish Holocaust survivor who tapped the wealth he accumulated as a businessman in the United States to support cultural projects in his homeland, most notably a museum devoted to the history of Jews in Poland that stands on the grounds of the Warsaw Ghetto, died on May 19 at his home in Alpine, N.J. He was 93.

His son, Geoffrey, confirmed the death.

Mr. Rolat believed that except for the dark chapter of World War II, with Nazi atrocities at concentration camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka in occupied Poland, the history of Polish Jewry was a mystery to most Jews, and most Americans. He donated millions of dollars to help build the interior and other elements of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014, and he became a major fund-raiser and an influential voice on its board.

“I want the gate of our museum, and not the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ gate, to be the first gate that will be seen by Jews visiting Poland,” Mr. Rolat told Forbes magazine in 2014, referring to the cynical inscription (“Work sets you free”) that greeted inmates when they entered the main Auschwitz concentration camp.

“The Jews should first learn our shared history,” he added. “And then, of course, they should see Auschwitz, but with a better understanding of what happened there.”

The main exhibition at the museum tells the story of Poland’s Jews over 1,000 years, from the Middle Ages to the present, using artifacts, paintings, replicas and interactive installations.

“It is not another museum of the Holocaust,” Mr. Rolat told McClatchy Newspapers in 2013. “It is a museum of life.”

Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka was the director of development for the museum when she first met Mr. Rolat at his office in Warsaw in 2004. When he learned that she wasn’t Jewish, he asked her why she was involved with a museum about Polish Jews.

“I told him, ‘There is no complete history of Poland without the history of Polish Jews,” she recalled in a phone interview. “‘Because I’m Polish, I’m involved.’ He was surprised and said, ‘Oh, God, if you’re involved in this, how about me, a Polish Jew, standing by you?’”

Mr. Rolat used his money to support arts events in Poland, like the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow and Singer’s Warsaw Festival, named for Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He also focused on Czestochowa, his hometown in southern Poland, where Jews were one-third of the population before World War II. He paid for a memorial statue at the local railroad station — where the Nazis selected about 40,000 Jews for deportation to Treblinka — and a plaque at the slave labor camp where he and his mother were imprisoned. And he helped support the restoration of parts of the Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa where his mother and older brother were executed.

One of his most poignant efforts was producing a concert in 2009 at an orchestra hall in Czestochowa on the site of a synagogue where he had worshiped, and which the Nazis destroyed.

At that concert, the violinist Joshua Bell performed with the same Stradivarius that for decades had been owned by Bronislaw Huberman, a virtuoso from Czestochowa who later founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). The Stradivarius, which was made in 1713, was stolen from Mr. Huberman in 1936 and did not resurface until 1987.

Mr. Bell played Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D minor, which Mr. Huberman had played as a teenager for an audience that included Brahms himself.

“The Germans burned this synagogue down in 1939,” Mr. Rolat said before the concert, which was documented in Haim Hecht’s film “The Return of the Violin (2012). “But this place, so full of glory, will always remain ours.”

He called the concert “one of the grand moments of my life.”

Zygmunt Rozenblat was born on July 1, 1930. His father, Henryk, was an accountant. His mother, Zyska Mariana (Szydlowska) Rozenblat, managed the household.

After Germany imposed punitive antisemitic laws, Zygmunt’s childhood education ended in the fourth grade. Two years later, he, his parents and his older brother, Jerzyk, were forced into a ghetto in Czestochowa.

His parents and brother perished in 1943. His father, deported to Treblinka, died in an inmate uprising that ended the camp’s operations. His brother, a Resistance fighter, was executed with five other partisans in the same cemetery where his mother was killed. Zygmunt was freed from the Hasag Pelcery slave labor camp when the Soviet Red Army liberated it in January 1945.

Zygmunt stayed in Poland for a short time before moving to Munich, where an aunt arranged for him to be tutored for six hours a day by a German professor, which enabled him to pass his secondary school equivalency test.

In 1948, he emigrated to New York City with a group of other orphaned refugees. With the help of a Jewish service organization, he received a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati and graduated in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Around that time, he changed his name to Sigmund Rolat.

After working in a shipping company, Mr. Rolat started his own,Skyline Shipping, in Manhattan, in 1959. Three years later, he started an export finance company, Oxford International.

“I went to Poland with him in the 1980s,” his daughter Samantha Asulin said in a phone interview, “and he realized he still felt a connection to his birthplace — and he saw business opportunities.”

One opportunity arose after Mr. Rolat saw a picture of teenagers in jeans sitting on the ruins of the Berlin Wall after it fell in 1989. He started a business in the early 1990s that exported denim to Poland.

Mr. Rolat’s honors include the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, which he received in 2008 from President Lech Kaczynski, and the Commander’s Cross With Star of the Order of Poland, from a subsequent Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, in 2013.

Mr. Rolat married Jacqueline Cantor in 1952; that marriage ended in divorce. His marriage to Ingrid Busse in 1966 ended with her death in 1967, and his marriage six years later to Jacqueline Spencer ended with her death as well, in 2013.

In addition to his son, from his first marriage, and his daughter Ms. Asulin, from his third, Mr. Rolat is survived by another daughter, Amanda Rolat, also from his third marriage, and four grandchildren. Another daughter, Jane Rolat, from his first marriage, died in 2003.

The memorial that Mr. Rolat commissioned at the Czestochowa railroad station was unveiled in 2009. Created by Samuel Willenberg, a Holocaust survivor, it consists of a brick wall, split jaggedly in half, with two rails on one side and a Star of David, also made of rails, on the other. (In 2021, it was vandalized with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.)

“All the Jewishness was broken,” Mr. Willenberg, who was born in Czestochowa, said at the unveiling, referring to the broken wall. He added, as quoted in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, “The rails are in the image of those sent to Treblinka, crammed into cattle cars, while the Magen David stands for the Jewish people who continue to live.”

When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Rolat said, “The importance of this monument can be summed up in one word: Memory.”

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