Left: A young Jolson performing a repair in his workshop, 1955 • Center: Jolson presenting a $10,000 donation to Columbia University after receiving his American citizenship in Federal Court in Brooklyn, 1952 • Right: An elderly Jolson with his wife Anya photographed by J. Conrad Williams beside a Polish torah (Jewish liturgical scroll), ca. 1990

Leon Jolson: An American Story

Hiding from the Nazis in a crawl space, built as a hideout behind a kitchen cabinet by his family in their apartment at No. 4 Kopernika Street in Warsaw, a young Leon Joszelson couldn't have imagined he'd later become a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist in the USA. In becoming Leon Jolson (1913-2009), the man who brought Elna to North America, he never forgot his humble origins, donating liberally to higher education and immigrant causes. But his story isn't a saintly one - he was a shrewd and ruthless businessman who did everything possible to skirt the law and stay a step ahead of his competitors. 

Leon Jolson broke the American sewing market with Necchi BU machines

Jolson arrived in the United States in 1947 with his wife Anya Kotkowski - reportedly "with only six dollars in his pocket" - both with fresh tattoos as proof of five years spent in Nazi work camps and DP camps. He soon found great success in the same business that sustained his family in Poland: service and sales of fine sewing machines. He took on the Singer juggernaut, which had previously enjoyed near-monopolistic dominance, with the unthinkable: imported machines from Central Europe, whose economies were rising to new heights of industrial innovation fueled by Marshall Plan financial and technical assistance.

Jolson's first venture in 1946 was the Necchi BU, familiar to him from his family's firm. This Italian-made model's swing needle, a critical feature Singer machines lacked, rendered the American market receptive despite a high price tag ($279, equivalent to thousands today), and soon Jolson's International Sewing Machine Sales Corp. was moving thousands of Necchis monthly.

Elna is a simpler machine in every way compared to the Necchi BU - in many ways a surprising step backward. Nevertheless, Jolson evidently saw sales potential and leveraged his industry connections to begin shipping Elna Grasshoppers to New York through the International Sewing Machine Co., later Elna International Co. By 1952 sales were $25 million per annum - an astonishing sum, equivalent to hundreds of millions today. By this time Dr. Ramon Casas had designed an updated Elna, the Supermatic, with a swing-needle and automatic stitch mechanism, the first capable of delicate automated reverse feed patterns.

Jolson eventually was compelled to sever ties with Necchi and Elna, shifting business at first to other Italian-made machines from the Vigorelli factory and then on machines from East Asia. He never stopped trading on the reputation of Necchi & Elna, mostly implicitly but frequently less so. Tavaro sued Jolson several times beginnings in the 1960s, alleging his continued use of the name Nelco sewing machines violated their trademark. The legal battle stretched well into the 1980s, mosty in Jolson's favor.

In later life, Jolson established the Nelco Foundation to benefit the arts and sciences and created the Leon Jolson Award, administered by the Jewish Book Council, for nonfiction work on the subject of the Holocaust. He donated a sculpture of the Polish-Jewish hero Janos Korchak to New York's Park Avenue Synagogue, and funded a casting of the Polish-Jewish sculptor Nathan Jacob Rapoport's Warsaw Ghetto Uprising for Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem.

Shortly before his death in 2009, Jolson made a point to return to the old country to commemorate his family history. His mother lay buried in a Catholic cemetery under a false name, Stefania Rudlicka, because it was forbidden to bury a Jew outside the Ghetto. Her gravestone was altered on Leon's initiative to reveal her identity with the message: "Here lies Blima Joszelson, buried here as a Christian because she couldn't be buried as a Jew." 

The building at Kopernika Street in which he and his family hid was also deemed a National Landmark and bears a plaque commemorating the story of the family who hid for their lives there. Sadly, the original hideout was discovered in 2012 to have been destroyed illegally during renovations, with several prison sentences handed down to parties responsible.