Philanthropist Sigmund Rolat may have survived the Holocaust and left Poland 72 years ago but part of him will forever remain in his native country where he continues to work for reconciliation.
Despite living through such dark times and suffering unspeakable tragedy at the hands of Nazi Germany, Holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat has taken the higher road. Despite witnessing humanity at its most evil in his youth in wartime Poland, he is an incurably positive thinker.
In speaking with him, it’s hard not to be impressed by his lucidity and constructive outlook.
“I’ve been an optimist all my life,” says Rolat, 87, a retired businessman who lives in New York. “I’ve been very, very lucky. Someone who has been lucky should be an optimist. I’m also hopeful. I have reasons not to be so hopeful but I’m always trying to look at the bright side of things.”
Luck, hope and optimism are not what most people would attribute to someone who lived through the Nazi killing of his mother, father and brother and other horrors linked to the genocide of his people. That Rolat maintains such an upbeat attitude that he’s translated into multiple actions to make the world a better place is a measure of the man.
Much of his philanthropy is in his native Poland, where he lost so much in his early years. His initiatives are aimed largely at reconciliation and building a better future by helping people learn from the past.
Among his contributions is Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Rolat was instrumental in its creation, not only due to his significant financial donation. Located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, it showcases a thousand years of Jewish life that flourished in Poland until the Holocaust. Polin opened on April 19, 2013, the 70th anniversary of the largest act of Jewish resistance to the Nazis: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
“For me, the museum is a dream come true,” says Rolat, who visits Poland several times a year. “Today, with the current situation sparked by the recent Polish legislation about the Holocaust, I’d say the museum is even more important than before.”
Rolat is referring to the dispute over the new Polish law which makes it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the slaughter of six million Jews. Jewish organizations in Poland say the legislation, which was enacted in February, has caused an increase in xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
“I’m upset by what has happened lately with the new law,” says Rolat. “But I still think that somehow this will be resolved, if only because it’s in everyone’s interest that it be worked out. I believe the Polish government will do what’s necessary and will do it soon. Although I doubt they will scrap the law altogether, I hope they will at least change the wording with the proper corrections to make it acceptable to us.”
Rolat is the driving force and chief funder of a project in Warsaw which is not without controversy. It entails creating a monument to Polish gentiles who risked their lives, literally, to save Jews during the Holocaust. He’s commissioned noted Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan to design the monument which will be erected next to the Polin Museum. Critics in Poland and abroad reject its location – in the heart of the city’s former ghetto – as inappropriate. They argue that given the magnitude of what happened there during the Holocaust, it should be reserved for the memory of Jewish suffering, not Polish heroism.
“I’ve been surprised by the opposition to the monument and I must say with great regret that 95% of it is from my co-religionists,” says Rolat who began planning for the project many years ago. “They say what I’m trying to do is sacrilege because of where the monument is going. I maintain that it’s because of where it will be built that so many people, especially young people, will see it and learn about these wonderful men and women who risked their lives saving a Jew or Jewish family. Because of its proximity to the museum, people will see it in the proper context.”
Part of his motivation stems from his gratitude of his non-Jewish Polish nanny, Elka, who refused to abandon Rolat and his family and was killed by the Nazis.
While some of his opponents may be vociferous, many people are in favor of the monument, which is slated to be unveiled later this year or early next year.
“I support this initiative,” says Toronto-based Eli Rubenstein, longtime National Director of the March of the Living Canada, the Holocaust education program which brings youth to Poland and Israel every year. “We need to give our young people positive role models by which to lead their lives. So much of their time in Poland is spent visiting death camps and other sites of mass murder by the Germans. We also need to show them there was another side, one that’s extraordinarily noble, courageous and inspiring. We must never cause our young people to lose hope, and this monument will help restore their hope in humanity after what they’ve seen in Auschwitz and similar places.”
In recent years, due in part to Rolat’s influence, the March of the Living has expanded its program in Poland. It now includes visits to the Polin Museum and meetings with Polish teens and Poles connected to the saving of Jews from the Nazis.
“Sigmund was very persuasive in causing us to broaden our minds,” says Rubenstein. “He encouraged us to also focus on Poland’s rich history and culture and the Jewish life that thrived there for so many centuries, and on the small but growing Jewish community in Poland that’s attempting to revive Jewish life there.”
Born in Czestochowa, 220 km south- west of Warsaw, Rolat spent the Holocaust in his hometown’s ghetto, in hiding and in a forced labor camp. After the war, orphaned, he moved around Europe before immigrating to the United States in 1948 and eventually becoming a highly successful businessman.
Today, despite his advanced age, Rolat remains committed to his charitable and Holocaust-related work in Poland and elsewhere. Much to the lasting benefit of Jews and non-Jews alike, far and wide.