Queens College, part of the City University of New York, recently announced the endowment of a professorship focusing on Holocaust studies. And the man responsible for funding the position, 93-year-old William Ungar, knows about the Holocaust firsthand. Ungar, who grew up in Poland, survived a concentration camp but lost much of his family, including his first wife and son, to the Nazis.
If his story started as a tragedy, however, Ungar quickly turned it into a triumph. He arrived in New York City in 1946 on the first boatload of displaced persons to reach America, without a penny to his name. But he learned English, graduated from CUNY with a degree in mechanical engineering, and started one of the country’s most successful envelope-production businesses, now known as the National Envelope Corporation. The penniless Ungar became a successful, wealthy man.
Ungar has also become a prominent philanthropist, supporting causes in Israel, Jewish education — particularly Solomon Schechter schools — and Holocaust awareness. Ungar has also steadily donated to Queens College, which his second wife, Jerry, attended. The school’s department of Jewish studies has received much of Ungar’s funding, including the new professorship in Holocaust studies, which Ungar announced last summer.
“I feel it’s very important for future generations to be educated,” Ungar recently told the Forward. “Such genocide should never occur again in a future generation.” Queens College president James Muyskens told the Forward that Ungar “is really someone who cares about education,” adding that he “couldn’t be happier” about the philanthropist’s involvement with the school.
The department is led by Mark Rosenblum and William Helmreich, who have made fund-raising a priority. Before their arrival less than a year ago, Helmreich estimates, the largest contribution to Jewish studies was around $60,000; since their arrival, the department has raised nearly $1 million. The two are still actively pursuing additional funding, however, since it’s unusual for public schools to receive sizable donations. That’s why Ungar’s generosity has been such a boon to the department. “This means a great deal to a college like Queens College. Usually things like this happen to schools like New York University or the Ivies,” said Helmreich, who met Ungar while writing “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America,” a Simon & Schuster book that Ungar had funded.
Besides Ungar’s endowment, Queens College’s Jewish-studies department has recently seen two other major contributions: Queensboro Hill Jewish Center has donated $100,000, and Pearl and Nathan Halegua, two Queens College graduates living on Long Island, have pledged funding for a scholar focusing on Jewish ethics. As Helmreich noted, “Queens [College] is on the move, we’re doing things that have never done before.”
The search for a professor to fill the Holocaust-studies post will begin next semester. Rosenblum is sensitive to the fact that the last generation of Holocaust survivors won’t be around for much longer, calling it “twilight time with survivors.” He was quick to note the importance of Ungar’s gift in light of the recent conference of Holocaust deniers in Iran, saying that it “comes at a time when there seems to be a sense of peril in the world—a sense of antisemitism, and a clear threat to the Jews, this rhetoric of suggesting the Holocaust didn’t exist.”
Ungar, too, sees echoes of Nazi Germany in present-day Iran, saying it is “almost a repeat of the ’30s,” and noting: “We can compare the president of Iran to Hitler for trying to spread lies.” Still, Ungar is quick to keep things in context, adding, “From the perspective of Jewish history, it’s not so unusual to have such enemies — we will persevere.”
Arthur Anderman, a real-estate attorney and lay leader within the Jewish-studies program, told the Forward that “as a public institution, Queens College doesn’t always get funding for professorships.” Anderman hopes that the new professor will “come in as a star.”
Ungar continues to be a star in his own right. His list of awards is lengthy — he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and was named National Entrepreneur of the Year in 1996, to name a couple — and his business continues to thrive. He has chronicled his own story in two autobiographies: “Destined to Live” and his latest, “Only in America: From Holocaust to National Industry Leadership.” Appropriate texts, perhaps, for an upcoming syllabus at Queens College.