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Holocaust survivor builds ‘bridges of reconciliation’
Enduring Nazi captivity from age 9, alumnus Sigmund Rolat honors brother's last request
Every job at the Nazi slave-labor camp in Poland was demeaning, demoralizing and draining, yet 13-year-old Sigmund Rolat knew that his was one of the best. While nearly 4,000 Jews toiled endlessly building missile shells on the premises, Sigmund had been chosen to care for a flock of chickens and geese, which kept him outdoors and often on the other side of the barbed wire, where the fowl freely fed next to a brook. Occasionally, he dared to lie down in the grass and dream of a new tomorrow.
Even better was the fact that his mother, Mariane, worked nearby — inside the Hasag Pelcery munitions factory. Although her job was grueling and her rations miserable, Sigmund realized that 95 percent of the other Jewish women in his hometown of Częstochowa had been transported to the Treblinka extermination camp, where his father had already been taken. Plus, the mother and son’s proximity to each other meant they could usually steal quick hugs each day.
But on July 20, 1943, the boy grew disturbed as he herded the flock along the facility’s main street. Iron hooks supporting naked light bulbs had been installed during the night, creating a scene so bright that it resembled a film studio, says University of Cincinnati alumnus Rolat.
The meaning was obvious. Right there in the middle of the street, the Nazis would conduct a “selection,” where the most able-bodied workers were separated from the rest. The less productive were either transported to gas chambers or mass murdered in the local Jewish cemetery.
“My first impulse was to find my mother,” Rolat says. He ran into the room where she worked and called her name. No answer. He sat down by the machine assigned to her and began crying.
Just then, she dashed into the hall, hugged him and repeated her familiar promise: “Don’t be afraid. Everything is going to be fine.” Believing her was difficult, but the love behind her staunch pledge always made him breathe a little easier.
Outside, they sat together for about an hour on the only grassy spot available until they had to line up in presorted groups to listen to a commanding officer’s speech about how grateful the Jews should be that they were still alive. “There is too much laziness here,” the officer barked over loudspeakers. “The selection is held to take away those who do not measure up.”
Sigmund’s group consisted of 34 young boys, and its existence was a miracle in itself. Nazis did not spare children. Along with women, who could not work as well as men, children were among the first to be killed — a fact he knew all too well.
The miracle children
Only a month earlier in June 1943, Sigmund was nearly forced aboard a truck full of people being transported to the Jewish cemetery where mass shootings would later occur. At the last second, the German director of the Hasag munitions factory halted the boarding process and adamantly demanded that he be given the children to work in his plant.
“Director Litt walked up to us and said, ‘I’m taking these kids,’” Rolat recalls vividly. “Right away, several Germans said that children do not belong in a munitions factory. But director Litt insisted that he would find work for us. ‘I want to take these kids with me,’ he said. And he did — to Hasag.”
Herr Litt, whose first name Rolat does not remember, gave the children menial jobs and repeatedly foiled Nazi attempts to execute them. “I owe my life to Litt,” Rolat declares. “And to this day, I don’t know why he did it.”
Nevertheless, it now looked as if those same children would meet their end after all. Five Jews at a time were being put on a “turntable” for the Germans to select the few they wanted to keep. Next up were the children. “I was sure it was the end,” Rolat distinctly remembers.
Once again, director Litt’s powerful voice rose over the commotion, sternly declaring the children would stay. “Litt and (SS officer) Klipsch started to quarrel loudly,” Rolat adds. “Everybody heard it. And Litt prevailed. I, of course, was in seventh heaven.”
The elation, however, was only momentary as his mother, Mariane, was soon pushed onto the turntable with four other women. A female with SS responsibilities walked up to Mariane, lashed her face with a riding whip and yelled, “Out with you!” Rolat quietly relates. All five women were pushed in a nearby building for transit to their death.
Sigmund became hysterical. Standing among his good friends, he began talking about how to rescue her. The other boys forcefully tried to hush him. He glanced toward the transportation building, clearly saw his mom’s face in a window and screamed, “Mama! Mama!”
“Then everything stopped as if paralyzed,” Rolat continues. “A security guard announced, ‘The boy that just cried out Mama — the one who wants his mother — step out now! I’ll release his mother.’
“I was so happy. I wanted to fly to him.
“I jumped, but I didn’t jump. I felt as if I were in a steel cage, hemmed in on all sides.
“I was unable to shout, ‘It’s me!’ I couldn’t speak at all because my friend Moniek Dauman’s fist was stuck in my mouth.
“My friend Tadek and someone else were holding me firmly from both sides,” he continues. “And Dauman squeezed me down between his legs.
“At that moment, my friend Josek Feierman shouted, ‘It’s me! I called my mom!’ He stepped out and walked up to the guard, who grabbed him by the collar and with a smile said, ‘All right. I’ll give you your mom!’”
The guard then threw him toward two soldiers. The next morning, some 400 people from Hasag, including Rolat's mother and his friend Josek, were shot in the Jewish cemetery and buried in a mass grave there.
Family of resistance fighters
It was neither the first nor last time that such brutalities occurred on what should have been sacred ground. “It was a killing field,” Rolat says of the cemetery — a killing field that had claimed the life of his only sibling, an 18-year-old brother, just four months earlier.
“I shall never forget the last time I saw Jerzyk,” Rolat says. “It was the night he left with his friends. He told me never to forget who I was and never to forget what I saw. He smiled and embraced me. Oh, how I loved him.”
That was in January 1943 when his brother joined five older friends to carefully craft resistance plans. In March, the men were fully armed and loaded with grenades at a temporary camp near Częstochowa when a 12-year-old classmate of Sigmund’s exposed their location to the Gestapo in an effort to save himself. The Nazis immediately surrounded the six, and they simply surrendered.
“It would have been easier for them to fight, kill a few Germans and die in a hail of bullets and exploding grenades,” Rolat says, “but the six brave men knew something my young classmate did not know: In the same building was a hideout for Jewish children. The six decided to forego avenging death in an attempt to save the lives of other Jewish children.”
The next day, the Germans executed all six young men along with the boy who exposed them, in the cemetery.
“I only know that theirs was the greatest courage a man can muster,” Rolat testifies. “For in a night of terrible torture that followed their capture, not one of them revealed his true identity or any names of others in the resistance movement. My brother was my hero.”
Later, he would learn that his father was also part of a resistance uprising — this one at Treblinka. Almost all of the Jews there were killed when they destroyed the facility, thus ending its existence as a death camp, proudly declares Rolat, who was only 9 when the Nazis captured Poland.
Such stories have motivated him to dispute a frequent misconception. “I want to debunk that terrible lie that we have heard so often — that the Jews went to their deaths like sheep,” he says. “Many died fighting.”
The reality of liberation
On Jan. 16, 1945, the Soviet army liberated Poland from the Germans. By that time, 14-year-old Sigmund was “a lonely, emaciated orphan, who by some miracle had survived the German occupation of his homeland,” he notes.
“Initially, I was euphoric. I could go wherever I wanted to go. I could do whatever I wanted to do. Unfortunately, that euphoria was short-lived.”
The truth was that after five and a half years, the Jews no longer owned any property, and other people had confiscated their homes. Jews had no job opportunities. Few of them had families left. Plus, some Polish citizens treated them with disdain. To make matters worse, young Sigmund had missed seven years of school by the time he tried to go back.
After spending a few months in a French orphanage (just long enough to learn French), the teenager traveled to Munich, where an aunt arranged for a retired professor to tutor him — six days a week for six hours a day with three hours of daily homework. Because textbooks were unavailable, his teacher handwrote books for his eager student.
Eighteen months later, the dedicated pupil passed his secondary-school equivalency test in Europe. One month later, he left for the United States, which had made special arrangements for European children orphaned by the war.
In February 1948, he arrived with $8 in his pockets, which was soon stolen. Nevertheless, “America was love at first sight,” he declares.
The Jewish Family Service Bureau, which was busy handling displaced orphans, took special interest in Sigmund because he was one of very few teenage Holocaust survivors with the credentials needed to enter college, he says. “A number of Jewish service organizations offered me assistance, and I actually had my choice of several schools."
He was brought to Cincinnati to see if he liked it, and he immediately knew this was where he belonged. He applied to the University of Cincinnati, which accepted him with the stipulation that he first learn English. In three short months, he did so.
While a student at the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, he lived at Hebrew Union College (practically across the street), wrote for UC’s student newspaper the News Record as a columnist and joined the Foreign Policy Association, French Club and the International Club. In 1952, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, then went to New York University where he earned an master’s in international relations.
Helping others at 82
Rolat’s career took off in New York. In 1959, he established a shipping business, Skyline Shipping Corp., which broadened into the field of finance when he formed Oxford International Corp. three years later. That company, of which he is still the president and sole shareholder, handles exports from the United States to Europe, the Middle East, Australia and Africa.
Early in the 1990s, financial success also came from his initiative to sell denim in Poland after communism collapsed. A photograph of West German teenagers sitting on a collapsing Berlin Wall triggered the idea. “That iconic picture showed all of them wearing jeans — the uniform of freedom,” he says. In two years, he had exported 9 million yards to his homeland.
Today at age 82, he and his wife Jacqueline live on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. He has three children, Geoffrey, Samantha and Amanda, plus four grandchildren. A daughter, Jane, died in 2003.
He is grateful that his accumulated wealth has enabled him to be a philanthropist who creatively honors his brother’s final directive “to never forget.” “I did not close my eyes to what I saw,” he admits, “and I remember it to this very day. I saw what no nice boy should ever see.”
Speaking freely about the atrocities that occurred is only a minor goal of his. His most feverish efforts have been to restore important landmarks, to reunite ancestors of Częstochowa Jews who are scattered around the world and to help people understand that, for 1,000 years, Jews and Christians had a productive and peaceful coexistence in Poland.
He came back to Cincinnati to tell that story on April 22 in honor of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) at the Mayerson Jewish Community Center and at Hebrew Union College. At HUC, he opened the extensive museum exhibit “The Jews of Częstochowa: Coexistence-Holocaust-Memory,” in which historic photos, videos and artifacts trace the history of the city’s once-flourishing Jewish community and its subsequent tragic destruction. The exhibit has been touring internationally since 2004.
Rolat, who serves as president of the World Society of Częstochowa Jews and Their Descendants, was instrumental in the creation of the exhibition. He also funded the restoration of Częstochowa’s Jewish cemetery, which had fallen into ruin with broken gravestones and stood at risk of an adjacent steel mill destroying it.
In addition, he is honored to chair the nine-day Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, the largest such festival in the world. This summer, the 22nd annual affair attracted approximately 15,000 people from around the world to its 200 events, including films, plays, music, dancing, art, historical exhibits, lectures and workshops,
Currently, Rolat’s chief philanthropic endeavor is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, due to open on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto in October 2013. “The Museum will be a place for the promotion of openness, tolerance and truth,” he says.
“In my later years, I’ve become a builder — building bridges of reconciliation. I’ve managed to accumulate resources that have enabled me to create them. America made it possible for me to return as a person able to help with the rebuilding of Jewish life in Poland and with the telling of our history.
“We must continue our duty to tell the story. That duty to tell all the memories has become the music of my life.”
Seventy years ago when Sigmund Rolat was only 12, his 18-year-old brother Jerzyk told him to never forget what he saw. In honoring his brother’s request, Rolat (A&S ’52) shares the following memories:
- How his happy childhood in Poland’s most vibrant Jewish community ended on Sept. 3, 1939, the day 9-year-old Sigmund was to begin the fourth grade. Instead German tanks rolled through Częstochowa’s main street, and “we became sub-humans,” he says.
- How his “beloved” Catholic nanny refused to leave the family’s household when they were incarcerated in the big ghetto. She was subsequently shipped to Treblinka where she perished in a gas chamber.
- How he, his mother and other relatives were marching in a large crowd to be deported in September 1942 when they suddenly managed to slip past heavily armed guards and dove into a facility that Sigmund’s Uncle Leon operated. Although the guard at the door tried to turn them in, his mother spied Leon and quickly called his name. “He saved our lives,” Rolat says.
- How Sigmund and at least 50 other children and their mothers spent the next 10 weeks hiding in an attic — only 5 feet high in the center and sloping down to 1 foot on the sides. “During the day we tried to move as little as possible,” he says, “and we froze completely at the dreaded signal — a single knock that meant that an enemy was approaching. We literally held our breaths until two knocks would relieve us. Many times we waited for long hours, alert and silent, with terror mounting in our hearts. The worst thing then would be to feel the urge to use the lavatory, because we could not move an inch.”
- How the Jews created extensive hideouts called “bunkers” to spare them from repeated searches and selections. Sigmund recalls three of them. One he entered through a wardrobe. Another was located in such a drafty attic that he dressed in all the clothing he owned to withstand the bitter cold. The last one was in a cellar where he hid from before sunup until evening each day. “After we filed in, our families would block and disguise the entrance by throwing coal and garbage in front from floor to ceiling, then, hopefully, free us at night before we would suffocate,” he recalls.
- How his Uncle Leon witnessed a German officer shoot and kill his 12-year-old son in the courtyard of his residence. Rolat says he has always been haunted by the thought of his uncle actually watching that.
- How he missed having his bar mitzvah ceremony when he was 13 because there was no synagogue, and he no longer had any parents or a brother.
- How some 40,000 Jews were shipped out of the Częstochowa railroad station to the Treblinka extermination camp. Each death train consisted of about 60 cattle cars, where 130 people were crammed into each car.
- How Uncle Leon had paid very large sums of money to a Catholic physician who was willing to raise Leon’s younger son as part of his own family. But at the war’s end, the father discovered the doctor had drowned his little boy.
Sigmund Rolat has plans to write his autobiography.
Photos in this section courtesy of Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team.
Click on any photo to enlarge it or to enter photo gallery of all 14 pictures.
- Video interview with Sigmund Rolat
- Video of the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival
- USA Today article on Rolat
- Article from the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
- The Jewish Daily Forward article on Rolat being "last of the survivors able to restore history"