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.
“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 grandchildren.
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 history.
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 cemetery.
“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.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.