WASHINGTON (Oct. 23)
Sigmund Strochlitz, who died at his home in New London, Conn., on Oct. 16 at 89 after a long illness, made monumental contributions to Holocaust remembrance. We had the privilege of working with him — he was our colleague and our friend. Born in Bedzin, Poland, in 1916, he was raised in a Zionist home and went to a Jewish high school before entering the prestigious Jagiellonian University. His studies were interrupted by the war.
In 1939, Strochlitz escaped to the Soviet zone of occupied Poland. He returned to Bedzin to be with his family and was deported with it in August 1943.
His parents, sisters and wife were killed upon arrival. He spent 15 months in Birkenau and was evacuated on the death marches in January 1945 first to Stutthoff, later to Hailfingen, Dautmergen and ultimately Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated by the British army in April 1945.
After liberation, Strochlitz married Rose Grinberg, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor from the Radziner Chasidic family. They emigrated to New York in 1951. Together they had four children, 14 grandchildren and 23 great grandchildren. In 1957, Strochlitz bought a Ford dealership in New London, naming it Whaling City Ford. The dealership became his principal business.
Strochlitz became close to Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel — they were in Birkenau at the same time.
In 1978, President Carter named Wiesel chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. Wiesel in turn requested that Carter appoint Strochlitz to the commission. On the commission, and later on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council that succeeded it, Strochlitz became Wiesel’s chief lieutenant.
He brought the keen pragmatism of a businessmen. He was shrewd and wise, persistent and determined but above all, loyal. Wiesel could rely upon him without question. He, in turn, translated Wiesel’s poetic vision into concrete action.
Strochlitz devoted countless hours and endless patience to the task and served as a translator and mediator, negotiator and taskmaster for the work of the commission and the council.
The one area where he assumed sole responsibility was the civic commemoration of the Holocaust. He established the format: a national commemoration on Yom Hashoah to be observed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, and statewide commemoration in the capital of each state with proclamations signed by the governors of each state and the mayors of major cities. In his first year, all 50 governors signed proclamations and his home state was among the first to host a civic commemoration.
He left the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1986 when Wiesel resigned on the eve of his trip to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but he made another very significant contribution to the permanent exhibition of the Washington Museum.
In anticipation of a visit by Wiesel, who was to speak at its opening, Strochlitz came to see the exhibition. He was overwhelmed and moved. Yet when viewing the model of the crematoria at Birkenau, the antechamber, gas chamber and ovens, he asked a simple question: “Where are the killers?” Visitors could see Jews in the gas chambers dying, but the chimneys were empty. We immediately called the sculptor and he designed a Nazi putting the gas canisters down the openings in the chamber’s ceiling. One image among thousands, yet it keenly captured the killing process and made the model whole.
Strochlitz also campaigned on behalf of Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize. Operating behind the scenes, he met with numerous heads of state and international figures and enlisted their support.
Among other things, Strochlitz served as the president of the American Friends of Haifa University, a governor of Bar-Ilan University, a founding member of the American Society for Yad Vashem, a trustee of the American Jewish Congress and a member of the U.S. Commission on the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. He endowed the Strochlitz Institute of Holocaust Studies at Haifa University and the Strochlitz Judaic Teaching Fellowship at Bar-Ilan University.
He was a survivor who gave much to the cause of remembrance, yet each time he gave — and in each way he gave — he became more.
Miles Lerman, who served with Strochlitz on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, was chairman of the council from 1993-2000. Michael Berenbaum was deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust (1979-1980) and project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1988-1993).