Sigmund Strochlitz’s Monumental Contribution to Holocaust Remembrance
Miles Lerman and Michael Berenbaum

Sigmund Strochlitz, who died at his home in New London, Connecticut on October 16th after a long illness, made two monumental contributions to Holocaust remembrance. We had the privilege of working with him – he was our colleague and our friend. We spoke each day, many times a day over many years, we were together in times good and bad and we can assess the importance of his work and give you a measure of the man..

 A word of background: Born in Bendzin, Poland in 1916, he was raised in a Zionist home and went to a Hebrew High School before entering Jagiellonian University, the great medieval University that is known as the Harvard of Poland [or to some Harvard is known as the Jagiellonian of Cambridge]. His studies were interrupted by the war.

In 1939 Strochlitz escaped to the Soviet Zone of occupied Poland, but he could not bear to be separated from his family so he returned to Benzin and was deported with his family in August 1943 as the last ghettoes of Poland were being emptied. His parents, sisters, and wife were killed upon arrival. He spent fifteen months in Birkenau and was forcibly evacuated on the death marches in January 1945 first to Stuthoff, 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 (1913-2001), a Polish-born Holocaust survivor from the Radziner Hasidic family.  They emigrated to New York in 1951.  They were the parents of 4 and the grandparents of 14 and the great grandparents of 23. In 1957, Strochlitz bought a Ford dealership in New London, Connecticut, naming it Whaling City Ford. The dealership became his principal business.

Strochlitz became close to famed Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel — they were in Birkenau at the same time — and it was his efforts with Wiesel and on behalf of Wiesel that were to propel him into international prominence.

 In 1978, President Jimmy Carter named Elie Wiesel as chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and Wiesel in turn requested that the President appoint Strochlitz to the Commission. On the Commission, and later on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council that succeeded it, Strochlitz became Wiesel’s consigliore, his gabbai to use a term from Hasidism, or Wiesel’s chief lieutenant, his eyes and ears. He brought the keen pragmatism of a businessmen who was shrewd and wise, persistent and determined but above all, loyal. Wiesel trusted him completely and could rely upon him without question. He, in turn, would have to translate Wiesel’s poetic vision into concrete action, and in turn inform Wiesel in lofty terms of the many mundane acts that were required to make the Commission effective and to run a national organization.

Strochlitz was literally selfless. He devoted countless hours and endless patience to a trying task and served as a translator and mediator, negotiator and taskmaster for the work of the Commission and the Council. He devoted to it his heart and his soul and endless energy. He was persistent and indefatigable. 

The one area where he assumed sole responsibility was on the civic commemoration of the Holocaust. He established the format: a national commemoration on Yom Hashoah to be observed in the Capitol Rotunda of the United States Capitol, and state wide 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 fifty governors signed proclamations and his home state of Connecticut became among the first to host a civic commemoration. What is now commonplace – the annual proclamations and commemorations — was set into place by Strochlitz. It is a historic contribution.

Alas, he left the United States 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 Permanent Exhibition. He was stunned, overwhelmed and moved. Yet when viewing the haunting model of the crematoria at Birkenau, the antechamber, gas chamber and very ovens in which his parents, wife and siblings may have been killed, he asked a simple question: “where are the killers?â€? Visitors could see Jews in the gas chambers dying, but the chimneys were empty. We immediately called the sculptor over and he designed a German SS man 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, enhancing its power, making it ever more haunting.

 Strochlitz’s other contribution was the Herculean effort he undertook to organize a campaign on behalf of Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize for Peace. Operating behind the scenes, he went everywhere, meeting with heads of state and major figures of international prominence enlisting their enthusiastic support for Wiesel, then still a young figure in his fifties to receive the much coveted prize. There was nowhere that Strochlitz would not go, no one with whom he would not speak. He was literally selfless, but oh so persuasive and in the end he succeeded. And the rest is history, but a history that could not have happened without Strochlitz.

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, a member of the board of Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, and, at the appointment of President George H.W. Bush, a member of the United States Commission on the Preservation of American 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 (1979-80) and later Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1988-1993).