By Wilma Hurwitz
for Montclair Local

Juliana Belcsak has been the driving force of cultural exchanges between Graz, Austria and Montclair for four decades.

At the Jan. 22 Montclair Council Meeting, Councilman Rich McMahon put forth a resolution to recognize Belcsak’s dedication to Montclair’s overseas neighbor initiatives by renaming Graz Park on Bloomfield Avenue as Belcsak Graz Park.  

The resolution recognized that from 1971, when Belcsak and her family moved to Montclair Township from Graz, she was a noted community leader and volunteer working with Montclair Overseas Neighbors, an organization that actively promotes and nurtures the Sister Cities program. Graz was the first of Montclair’s Sister Cities.

The towns’ relationship actually began shortly after World War II.

In 1949, a Montclair Citizens Committee petitioned the then Montclair Mayor, Howard N. Deyo, to formally invite the 800-year-old city of Graz, to become Montclair’s first Sister City. Graz Mayor Edward Speck gladly accepted. At this point, the Citizens Committee became Overseas Neighbors.

After World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower implemented the Sisters Cities initiative as the “cornerstone of people-to-people diplomacy,” with the goal being to build global cooperation at the municipal level, promote cultural understanding and stimulate economic development. It supports relationships through travel as well.

“Belcsak’s initiative is one of the many great stories that were part of the Marshall plan,” said McMahon, about the United States Assistance Program to rebuild the infrastructure in post-war Europe.

Belcsak was born in Graz, Austria where after the end of World War II, Montclair donated much needed food, medicine, medical equipment and supplies. Mountainside Hospital also contributed an urgently needed x-ray machine and an incubator to the bombed-out hospital to the Austrian town.

Soon after an official sister city relationship was solidified between the two cities. And as a special recognition of this bond with Graz, in 1950 the Montclair created Graz Park at 842-844 Bloomfield Avenue near intersection with Prospect Avenue.  

Decades later, Belcsak and her family moved to New York City, While visiting Swiss friends in Montclair, she and her husband Hans fell in love with the town. They moved to a house on Russell Terrace in the 1970s and were introduced to the Montclair Overseas Neighbors group during a fundraiser for the scholarship program.

With Belcsak’s involvement, the connection between the two towns grew with planned visits and student exchanges between the towns. Today’s relationship between the sister cities is prospering through an active exchange of not only students, but artists, government officials, scientists and musicians as well.

Belcsak was committed to those local and international programs undertaken by the Montclair Rotary Club.

“I first encountered Juliana at Rotary functions; I didn’t know what her title was, but she was clearly in charge. When she spoke she was very gracious, rather funny and a little bawdy. She easily got everyone’s attention,” McMahon said.

McMahon was part of the Montclair delegation to Graz in 2015 to celebrate their 65 years of being sister cities, which Belcsak organized with a red-carpet tour with city by councilor Maxie Uriah-Frick in Graz.

“I found out just what a force of nature Belcsak was in the lead up to and our visit to our sister city Graz in 2015. She thought of everything down to the smallest detail. We were always well-occupied and feted, but never rushed. Juliana led us to some great sites and unbelievable meals in Graz,” he said.

Graz delegates are expected to visit Montclair in 2020 to celebrate 70 years, said McMahon.

Mona Keil and her husband Stuart, former owners of Keil’s Pharmacy in Upper Montclair, know Belcsak from the Montclair Rotary Club and traveled to Graz.

“As president of Overseas Neighbors, Juliana promoted adult exchanges with our sister city Graz, Austria. With the help of Dr. Susan Cole, President of Montclair State University, college exchanges take place every year with Graz students,” said Mona Keil.

With Belcsak’s international connections -- and those of her husband Hans who belonged to the New York City Rotary Club -- high school student exchanges began. The visits expanded to include college students and adult.

The Overseas Neighbor program is a yearly student exchange program with Montclair State University.

Belcsak now resides in South Carolina, but told Montclair Local she was humbled by the town’s decision to rename the park in her honor.

“I am simply stunned and truly humbled. Also embarrassed because I was given credit for work all of us members of Overseas Neighbors and the Montclair Rotary Club simply do because we believe in helping others, sponsoring the talents of our young people and fostering good international relations,” she said.

Montclair’s other sister cities are Barnet, England; Cherepovets, Russia; and Aquilonia, Italy.