FOCUS ON ISSUES
Survivor from Poland makes
dialogue his own historical legacy
By Dinah A. Spritzer
October 23, 2006
CZESTOCHOWA, Poland, Oct. 23 (JTA) - Until recently, it was thought
that a particular truckload of Jews selected for death by the Nazis
in Czestochowa were all lined up, shot and killed.
But as Sigmund Rolat, who survived the Holocaust in the Polish town,
tells the audience about a day he thought he knew so well in the
former Jewish ghetto, he has a surprise.
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"I have just learned that this man," he says, pointing to Joseph
Koenig, "was on that truck. He fell under the dead bodies and later
managed to escape."
A collection of Poles, Israelis, Canadians, Australians and
Americans clap. Koenig, now living in Chicago, begins talking about
his experience, which includes hiding in Gestapo headquarters. His
daughter Suzanne stands by his side in tears as she stands looking
into the Communist-era buildings built atop the ghetto's perimeter.
"He didn't want to come back here," she said of her father's first
trip to his birthplace since he left after World War II. "But then I
heard about this gathering," she said, referring to the five-day
reunion of Czestochowa Jews and their descendants held here earlier
this month. "I felt this was my chance to see where he had come
from, and with him, it means so much more," she said.
The revelation of Koenig's escape a deeper understanding of the
Holocaust and fresh discoveries even within families are some of the
many ways Rolat has touched the lives of thousands of Jews and non-
Jews with ties to Czestochowa.
Rolat, founder and president of the World Society of Czestochowa
Jews and Their Descendants, has so far bankrolled two reunions in
his birthplace. Each attracted some 300 participants from around the
world, including dozens of Holocaust survivors, their children and
The reunions are an outgrowth of "The Jews of Czestowhowa," a 2004
photography exhibit funded by Rolat that continues to be shown in
museums around the United States. The exhibition has drawn together
a mini-Diaspora of Jews seeking to know more about their family
The World Society Web site, created last year, has attracted 33,000
visitors, according to Rolat.
The volume of interest is remarkable considering that 2,000 of
Czestochowa's 30,000 Jews survived the war, although Rolat points
out that thousands more left Poland before the war began.
Many of city's Jewish survivors were like Rolat, who was a slave
laborer at one of the Hasag munitions factories in the town, halfway
between Krakow and Warsaw.
There is little visible evidence in the city of what befell its
Jewish residents. But Rolat has purchased the land from which the
Jews, including his father, were deported to Treblinka, and plans to
build a memorial there. This follows his funding of the cleanup of
Czestochowa's Jewish cemetery where his brother, an anti-Nazi
fighter, is buried. Rolat provides generous support for the local
Jewish community of about 40 people and is helping it to build a new
hall for social functions.
Politicians from Polish President Lech Kaczynski to Czestochowa's
mayor court Rolat, knowing that his financial backing can realize
many of their own aims.
He donated $1 million to a favorite cause of Kaczynski, the Museum
of the History of Polish Jews. Rolat is the museum's North American
treasurer. Rolat also helps fund the annual Krakow Jewish Festival
and is a key donor for Dialogue Among Nations, a Warsaw-based
nonprofit group dedicated to Jewish-Polish understanding.
But Rolat says he really hit the big time when he presented the
book "The Jews of Czestochowa" to Pope Benedict XVI during the
pontiff's recent visit to Auschwitz.
Rolat, who lives in New York, accumulated his wealth running
international finance firms like Skyline Shipping Corporation and
Oxford International Corporation. He is a partner in the tallest
building in Warsaw, the Oxford Tower.
At the conference, a concert open to the public at a hall that was
once the town's largest synagogue features a performance by an
American violinist, the grandson of a Czestochowa Jew.
But among the reunion set, there is agreement that most North
American Jews are suspicious of Polish attitudes toward Jews. They
could not fathom spending Sukkot in Poland.
Rolat could easily latch onto such bitterness. He left Poland as a
reaction to the 1946 Kielce pogrom, which saw police and townspeople
murder 39 Holocaust survivors. "I could tell stories about how I was
treated after the war, but why bother?" he said.
Last year, Rolat created a prize fund for Jewish culture, which
enabled students at a Czestochowa school to use the town's Jewish
past as the subjects for their creations. Thanks to Rolat, the
contest is now part of the curriculum of the country's 46 art high
schools and has become a nationwide competition.
Not all survivors or their children share Rolat's enthusiasm for
fostering Polish-Jewish relations. Koenig, for instance, says most
Poles he came in contact with before World War II loathed Jews.
Asked how he felt about Poles now, he gave a wry smile: "The same
way I felt when I left."
But Rolat is thinking about the future.
During the reunion festivities, Rolat made sure that Polish
youngsters were involved from start to finish, from building a
Sukkah to playing music at a memorial service in the Jewish
"Children of anti-Semites are not necessarily anti-Semites, they are
children," Rolat said. "They used to know next to nothing about
Jewish life, culture and the Holocaust. But look at them now, look
at them now."