Sigmund Strochlitz Dies At 89
New London — Sigmund Strochlitz, a Holocaust survivor and international champion for peace and humanity, died Monday at his home on Billard Road. He was 89 and had been ill since the spring.
Mr. Strochlitz was well known locally as the owner of Whaling City Ford in New London, especially through television commercials in which he displayed a grandfatherly smile while delivering his slogan: “Come in. I would like to meet you.”
He was much better known internationally as a member of the Council to establish a National Holocaust Memorial and Museum. As chairman of the council's Remembrance Committee, he led the effort to inspire every state and Washington, D.C., to hold an annual Holocaust Remembrance ceremony to recall victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
“That's a pretty remarkable feat,” said Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Southeastern Connecticut and a longtime friend of Mr. Strochlitz. “Of course, he didn't do it alone, but he certainly led the effort.”
To people all over the country and overseas, Mr. Strochlitz was known as Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel's partner in the effort to ensure that the world would not forget the Shoah, the Hebrew term for the Nazis' slaughter of millions of Jews and others.
Wiesel is expected to deliver a eulogy at Mr. Strochlitz's funeral, scheduled for noon Wednesday at Congregation Beth El in New London.
“We were very close friends,” Wiesel said Monday from his office in Boston. “Not a day went by that we weren't in touch. We were always linked.
“He was my companion and my friend. I will miss him. He was involved in all of my endeavors, whether they were official missions or professional assignments. I would take him with me whenever I could.”
The two men had traveled the world together, including trips to Poland, Israel and Germany.
“He built his life from ruins,” Wiesel said. “He brought ruins with him and he built a family, a career and a circle of friends. He learned and taught those lessons. They were lessons of humanity.
“He was very politically involved. He had an amazing circle of friends, in business, in the Jewish community and in the community of New London.
“He was extremely sensitive to memory and remembrance. When the president appointed me to the (Holocaust Memorial and Museum) commission in 1978, he immediately became my right-hand man,” Wiesel said. “He was instrumental in all of our accomplishments.”
Mr. Strochlitz used his influence to bolster Wiesel's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Strochlitz, who survived more than 15 months in a concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, was born in Bedzin, Poland, and studied economics at the University of Krakow until the outbreak of war in 1939. He and his late wife, Rose, moved to the United States in 1952 from Stuttgart, Germany, seeking a peaceful life for their family.
“I have lived through two world wars, and I didn't want my daughter to go through the same thing,” Mr. Strochlitz told The Day in 1957.
Friends, family and contemporaries all spoke of his compassion and love of people and of life.
“My father managed to maintain a steadfast optimism,” Mr. Strochlitz's daughter, Romana Primus, said. “Through it all, it is amazing that he was an unfaltering optimist. He just believed that in general people were good, and that, even through obstacles to peace and human rights, human ingenuity would prevail to the good.
“He was a very generous man,” she said. “People know of his public deeds, but they don't know the help he gave to individuals, quietly, without fanfare. He was the most generous person I ever knew. He taught us that people blessed with good things should share them. I think that is the single most important thing he taught us.”
“He was truly an unusual man,” said Myron Hendel, president of the Hendel Petroleum Co. in Waterford and a longtime friend of Mr. Strochlitz. “Our community was truly blessed when he settled here.
“He never spoke about the Holocaust until he met Elie,” Hendel said.
“Elie was a champion for the cause that it should never happen again,” said Hendel, whose wife, Rita, added, “They traveled the world on behalf of Jews. They felt an obligation to the dead.”
Myron Hendel recalled an anecdote that Mr. Strochlitz told him about meeting the pope. He said there was a standing rule that after 15 minutes, a knock at the door signaled the end of the meeting.
“He had prepared his remarks, what he would say,” Hendel said. “But when he got in the pope's office, he froze. He couldn't get a word out.”
“The pope extended his arm to Siggy and spoke to him. Then he was able to relax. They had a long visit. The pope was so taken by him that he waived the 15-minute rule.”
Mr. Strochlitz's love of people, and of his synagogue, fostered a passion at Congregation Beth El, where he was revered by the congregants and rabbi as a generous member, leader and scholar of the old testament.
“He was a tremendously respectful man,” said Rabbi Carl Astor. “He knew the Jewish text. He knew a lot, but he would never contradict the rabbi. He was very deferential.”
Astor said Mr. Strochlitz loved to talk politics and was always concerned about the well-being of children.
“His greatest love was the children. He couldn't talk to them enough.”
Fischer said Mr. Strochlitz loved to sing Yiddish songs with Fischer's children when their families shared Shabbat dinners on Friday evenings.
Mr. Strochlitz was held in Auschwitz from August 1943 to November 1944. Having lost his parents, two sisters, his first wife and other relatives before he was freed, he was somewhat humbled by his own survival. Surviving the Holocaust, he often said, didn't make him a hero.
“It was luck. That's all,” he said. “Everyone who survived, even the ones who hid, were just lucky they weren't taken away.”
Mr. Strochlitz worked in the export business prior to becoming a Ford dealer, first on Long Island and then in New London.
He bought the Ford dealership in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island. At its peak, the business, located in a then-famous shopping district known as the Million Dollar Mile, sold nearly 1,000 vehicles in a year.
In 1959, Ford corporate officials told Mr. Strochlitz about an opportunity to buy the dealership on Main Street in New London. He accepted the opportunity quickly, “possibly because I wanted to escape the rush of the city,” he said at the time.
A black Model T sat on the roof of the dealership, first named Whaling City Motors when Mr. Strochlitz sold the German-built Borgward alongside Galaxies, Fairlanes, Falcons and F-150s. The name was eventually changed to Whaling City Ford. The dealership still thrives at the corner of Colman and Broad streets.
Hendel said Mr. Strochlitz gave up what could have been another successful location in Stonington.
“He started Seaport Ford, on Route 1,” Hendel said. “And, business-wise, it would have been in his best interest to keep it going. But he was starting to get so busy with the (Holocaust Remembrance) that he gave it up.”
A small man with a soft, high-pitched voice, Mr. Strochlitz became known for his television commercials in which he addressed the public sincerely.
His slogan –– “Come in. I would like to meet you.” — was the last, ad-libbed line of a commercial that Primus wrote.
“He just felt like it was the right thing to say, so he said it,” Primus, his daughter, said.
Once, when he was introduced to a young boy at Beth El, the child instantly recognized the voice, and mimicked it, right down to the Polish accent. He told Mr. Strochlitz, “Hello. It's so nice to meet you.”
They shared a laugh.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the Presidential Commission on the Preservation of Americans' Heritage Abroad, and in 1993 French President Francois Mitterand appointed him a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic.
He was awarded the Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award in 1986, the National Holocaust Remembrance Tribute (1986) and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor (1997).
Connecticut College, Haifa University (Israel) and Bar Ilan University (Israel) awarded Mr. Strochlitz honorary doctorates.
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