Sigmund Rolat, who used his wealth to commemorate Polish Jews, dies at 93

Sigmund Rolat, a Polish Holocaust survivor who used the wealth he amassed as a businessman in the United States to support cultural projects in his homeland, most notably a museum dedicated to the history of Jews in Poland that sits on the grounds of the ghetto of Warsaw, died May 19 at his home in Alpine, NJ. He was 93 years old.

His son, Geoffrey, confirmed the death.

Rolat believed that, except for the dark chapter of World War II, with Nazi atrocities in concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka in occupied Poland, the history of Polish Jewry was a mystery to most Jews and most Americans. He has 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 has become a major fundraiser and an influential voice on its council.

“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,” Rolat told Forbes magazine in 2014, referring to the cynical inscription (“The work makes you free”) who greeted the inmates when they entered the main concentration camp of Auschwitz.

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

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

“It's not another Holocaust museum,” Rolat told McClatchy Newspapers in 2013. “It's a museum of life.”

Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka was the museum's director of development when she first met Mr. Rolat in his office in Warsaw in 2004. When he learned she was not Jewish, he asked her why she was involved in a museum about Polish Jews. .

“I told him: 'There is no complete history of Poland without the history of Polish Jews,'” he recalled in a telephone 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 your side?'”

Mr. Rolat used his money to support arts events in Poland, such as the Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow and the Warsaw Singer Festival, named after Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature .

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

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

At that concert, violinist Joshua Bell performed with the same Stradivarius that had been owned for decades by Bronislaw Huberman, a virtuoso from Czestochowa who later founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). The Stradivarius, 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 audiences that included Brahms himself.

“The Germans burned this synagogue in 1939,” Rolat said before the concert, 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 great moments of my life”.

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

After Germany imposed punitive anti-Semitic laws, Zygmunt's childhood education ended in the fourth grade. Two years later, he, his parents, and his older brother, Jerzyk, were forced to take refuge in the Czestochowa ghetto.

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

Zygmunt stayed in Poland for a short time before moving to Munich, where an aunt had him tutored six hours a day by a German teacher, which allowed him to pass the secondary school equivalency test.

In 1948 he immigrated 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 degree in political science. Around that time he changed his name to Sigmund Rolat.

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

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

An opportunity arose after Mr. Rolat saw a photo of teenagers in jeans sitting on the ruins of the Berlin Wall after it fell in 1989. In the early 1990s he started a business exporting denim to Poland.

Rolat's awards 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 the 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 also ended with her death in 2013.

In addition to his son from his first marriage and his daughter, Mrs. Asulin, from his third marriage, Mr. Rolat leaves behind 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 commissioned by Mr Rolat at the Czestochowa railway station was inaugurated in 2009. Created by Samuel Willenberg, a Holocaust survivor, it consists of a brick wall, jaggedly divided in half, with two tracks 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 Jewishness was destroyed,” Willenberg, born in Czestochowa, said during the inauguration, referring to the broken wall. He added, as quoted by the Jewish newspaper The Forward, “The rails are the image of those sent to Treblinka, crammed into the cattle cars, while the Magen David represents 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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