Zygmunt Nissenbaum

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The Independent Online

Zygmunt Nissenbaum, businessman and philanthropist: born Warsaw 9 August 1926; married (two sons, one daughter); died Constance, Germany 11 August 2001.

Zygmunt Nissenbaum, businessman and philanthropist: born Warsaw 9 August 1926; married (two sons, one daughter); died Constance, Germany 11 August 2001.

Without a second thought, the 16-year-old Zygmunt Nissenbaum grabbed the wheelbarrow containing discarded spectacles and headed after his father and brother. No one called him back. Within minutes those in the queue he had left behind – including his mother – were gassed and were about to be converted into ash in Treblinka's ovens.

It was 1943 and, having surreptitiously joined the few who had been spared for forced labour, Nissenbaum was loaded on to a freight-car bound for Majdanek. After sojourns in the salt mines and in Auschwitz, he was sent to Germany, finally escaping from a camp in Offenburg near the French border as the Nazi regime was beginning to disintegrate.

By the end of the Second World War, Nissenbaum's world had been transformed. Most of his family had been annihilated, sparing only one of his brothers, the family home in Warsaw had been destroyed, the vibrant Jewish community of pre-war Poland had been all but wiped out, his homeland now had a Communist government, and he was a refugee amid a nation that had unleashed the destruction of his family and world.

"I told myself I would never serve the Germans," he later recalled. Vowing never to take German citizenship, he settled in the southern town of Constance, marrying another former internee. He began in business repairing lorries and collecting scrap metal.

But his business acumen (his father and one of his brothers had run construction-related companies in Poland) soon brought him success in machine building and, later, the property market. He also bought a boatyard making tourist craft.

He remained loyal to his community, building a synagogue in Constance in memory of his parents and gathering round him hundreds of Polish Jews who had – like himself – been freed from the camps.

It was not surprising that Nissenbaum long had no desire to revisit Poland. Although he had a comfortable childhood as the youngest of five children in a well-to-do family, attending the Tarbut, said to have been the best Jewish school in Warsaw, this life was turned upside-down when he was just 12 with the outbreak of the war everyone had been expecting. "From day to day our life became a nightmare."

Forced to wear the Star of David, which he said made him feel plague-stricken, he was officially confined to the ghetto and witnessed the descent into hunger and privation. As the youngest, he was deputed to risk punishment by escaping to forage for food.

From a hiding place in the city's Brodno Jewish cemetery he witnessed the execution of a group of 10 people led by a rabbi carrying the Torah scrolls, "a frightening scene for the young boy I was then".

Twice rounded up at Warsaw's Umschlagplatz, the departure point for the death camps, he avoided shipment until Passover 1943, when he and his family were herded into the last transport as the Nazis liquidated the ghetto in the wake of the failed uprising.

He did not return to Warsaw until April 1983 to attend the 40th-anniversary commemoration of the ghetto uprising, heading a delegation of the Council of Jews in Germany. He revisited the Brodno cemetery and was shocked to see broken tombstones, bones strewn around and drunks frequenting the last resting place of many of the city's Jewish community, including family members. "When I went back to Germany, I was sick. I felt I had to do something," he explained.

He pledged to restore neglected Jewish sites in his homeland and, within two years, had registered the Nissenbaum Foundation in Warsaw to achieve this goal. Never one to hide his light under a bushel, he placed the name of the foundation on a neon sign atop a central Warsaw skyscraper.

Some in Poland's small Jewish community were embarrassed by his high-profile role, fearing it would revive stereotypes of Jews as rich businessmen taking over the country – stereotypes they had battled so hard to overcome. Others complained that the restoration of synagogues and graveyards and the placing of monuments to Nazism's victims took second place to advertising the foundation's existence with prominent plaques on every building. He forged ties to Poland's political élite and senior Catholic bishops and built up his business interests in the country.

A short stocky man, Nissenbaum was followed around at public events by his own cameraman and photographer. He loved to impress visitors with photographs of himself with presidents, including George Bush (senior) of the United States and Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, and with Pope John Paul II. Cordial in public, he could become cold and hostile when impertinent journalists tried to question him in detail about the finances of his foundation, which remained opaque.

Nissenbaum devoted his last two decades to promoting reconciliation between Jews and Germans, as well as between Jews and Poles, and did much to restore the rich, but neglected Jewish heritage in a land where Jews once made up a tenth of the population.

Felix Corley