Leon Jolson, 96

Leon Jolson, 96; Holocaust Survivor, Businessman, Philanthropist

Leon Jolson and his wife, Anya, with a Torah that was hidden by a Polish Christian from Nazi occupation forces in Poland during World War II.
Leon Jolson and his wife, Anya, with a Torah that was hidden by a Polish Christian from Nazi occupation forces in Poland during World War II. (By J. Conrad Williams -- Newsday)
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By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Leon Jolson, 96, a Polish-born concentration camp survivor who achieved success as a sewing machine entrepreneur in the United States after World War II and provided financial help to other refugees, died Aug. 7 at his home in Manhattan, N.Y. The family did not disclose the cause of death.

He was born Leon Joselzon in Warsaw in 1912. Before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, he found moderate success by following his father into the sewing machine import business in Warsaw. After the invasion, Mr. Jolson was among thousands of Jews forced into a ghetto in the Polish capital.

When word came that the Nazis were planning to send Jews to labor camps, Mr. Jolson heard from a friend that they were in fact extermination camps.

"I decided that alive I will not go to this camp," he told an interviewer in 1952. He said he went into hiding as long as he could but by 1943 was rounded up and sent to a concentration camp.

In the camps, he was put to work making Nazi uniforms, and his mechanical expertise brought him a special privilege: a permit to move between camps. He said that on one walk he escaped back to Warsaw, where he was reunited with his wife, the former Anya Kotkowski, who had been using false papers. His mother also was with them at first, but she died during the 21 months that they stayed in hiding with help from the Polish underground.

The Jolsons were forced out of hiding by a Polish uprising and captured by the Germans. While being transported to another camp, they jumped from a moving train and hid on a farm for six months. There they did accounting for an illiterate farmer. As the war was coming to an end in Europe, they wound up behind Soviet army lines. After briefly repairing sewing machines in Bucharest, Mr. Jolson arrived with his wife in 1945 at a displaced persons camp in the U.S. zone near Munich.

"The sight of American soldiers was welcome, but how often we mistook the uniforms for the SS and ducked into hallways," he later told the New York Times.

When Mr. Jolson arrived in New York in 1947, he was penniless and stateless, bearing a numbered tattoo from his years in concentration camps.

The Jolsons came to New York under the sponsorship of the United Service for New Americans, an organization that helped resettle Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Mr. Jolson went to work in the city's garment district, peddling sewing machine parts and eventually acting as a broker between buyers and sellers.

He wrote letters to former European business associates offering to sell their sewing products, and he opened a small store. Noticing that only basic sewing machines were being sold in America, he contacted Necchi, a prominent Italian sewing machine maker with which he had done business in Poland, and he began selling a model that offered dozens of molded disks that could be easily inserted to create hundreds of embroidery patterns.

He capitalized on the "do-it-yourself" movement and challenged the idea that American housewives did not want to sew. Even though more expensive than Singer machines, the Necchi was marketed well, and Mr. Jolson's sales reached $ 2 million by the end of 1948. He quickly paid back a $2,000 loan from the United Service for New Americans and donated $1,000 to the organization for it to give to another immigrant.

"Please give it to someone who can be as lucky as I am," he told the group's president.

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