Holocaust survivor who co-founded HMLC dies at 95

Leo and Sara Wolf hold a photo of themselves during 1946, soon after they were married.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Leo Wolf, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Dachau and one of the three co-founders of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, died Friday, March 4 at the age of 95.  He was a founder of L. Wolf Co. and a longtime resident of greater St. Louis. He had been in declining health for several months, family members said.

Mr. Wolf is regarded as a co-founder of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, along with St. Louis lawyer Tom Green and the late Bill Kahn, former executive director of the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Leo Wolf was born Feb. 15, 1921, in Lodz, Poland, the son of Ruben and Chaika Spicehandler Wolf. In September 1939, Mr. Wolf was herded into the infamous Lodz Ghetto, where more than 230,000 Jews were imprisoned after the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Deportations of large numbers of Jews from the Lodz Ghetto soon commenced, and Mr. Wolf was sent to Auschwitz, enduring a bitterly cold Polish winter being transported in the infamous cattle cars. Mr. Wolf’s future wife, Sara, whom Mr. Wolf knew only casually at the time, was also among those transported to Auschwitz.

Neither Sara nor Leo Wolf stayed long at Auschwitz. Within days, Sara was shipped out, eventually sent to clear forests and, at one point, to work in a salt mine.  

Mr. Wolf also was soon taken from Auschwitz and was sent to a long succession of camps, often smaller ones in Bavaria. Twelve-hour workdays were usual. Mr. Wolf, then in his 20s, labored at a cement factory for a time.  He also cleared forests for the Autobahn, Germany’s superhighway. Eventually, he ended up in Dachau.  

“You could die any minute, not just every day,” Mr. Wolf said in a 2012 interview with the Jewish Light in advance of a gala dinner in couple’s honor at the Holocaust Museum. “The German with the gun could pull the trigger, and I’m gone.” 

Mr. Wolf became part of the infamous Dachau Death March into the forest. He said that he survived through a series of lucky breaks and that when American forces liberated him, he weighed 66 pounds. He spent five months in the hospital.

“Sometimes looking back, I think to myself, ‘Did I really go through it? How did I survive?’ ” Mr. Wolf said.

Sara also was eventually put on a march, this one to Bergen-Belsen as the Allies closed in.  She was later liberated by the British.  

In the chaos after the camps, Mr. Wolf made his way to Bergen-Belsen in search of his kin, but none of his family survived. Instead, he met Sara’s brother and became better acquainted with her. Leo and Sara Najman Wolf were married by a rabbi in 1948, in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt, Germany.  When they were able to leave Europe for the United States, they decided to settle in St. Louis, arriving around Labor Day in 1949. Mr. Wolf arrived with just one dollar in his pocket.

His first local job was as a porter at a downtown hotel. Later, the family opened successful restaurant. Mr. Wolf eventually founded L. Wolf Co., a construction business based in Granite City, which built numerous residential and commercial properties, and continues to operate successfully.

Mr. Wolf started supporting local Yom HaShoah observances in the late 1960s. Over the decades, backed by a group of fellow survivors, he worked hard to champion the idea of a Holocaust education facility, something more impressive than the small downtown office that had served as the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies since 1977. 

Finally, in the early 1980s, with funds donated by Mr. Wolf, the Holocaust Center opened in one room on the lower level of the new Federation building. It would take another decade for the Holocaust Museum to become a reality.

In 1994, plans were drawn up for the museum and in April 1995, the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in Memory of Gloria M. Goldstein opened its doors.

Mr. Wolf told the Light in a 2006 interview that he believed he endured ghettos and concentration camps and “all the hell in the world” for one reason: to make sure the Holocaust will be remembered. 

“This is the only reason I was saved. This was my calling,” he said.

Jean Cavender, executive director of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, called Mr. Wolf “the patriarch” of the museum.  

“While small in stature, his multiple escapes from death during the Holocaust, and his resilience, made him a giant within our community,” Cavender said.

Green recalls the pivotal role played by Leo Wolf in making his dream of a local Holocaust Museum a reality. Mr. Wolf knocked on doors and made appointments with people to secure the funds needed for the construction of the Museum inside the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building.

“When we were building the museum, Leo went by there every single morning to check on the job,” Green recalled.  “He wanted to make sure it was done right.”

In addition to his involvement with the Holocaust Museum, including service on its commission, Mr. Wolf was active with Shaare Zedek Synagogue (now Kol Rinah), serving as its president in 1971-72. He was also active with the Southern Illinois Builders Association and was a longtime supporter of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

Funeral services were held March 7 at Kol Rinah, 829 North Hanley Road in University City, where Rabbi Noah Arnow officiated. 

Members of Mr. Wolf’s  family, representing three generations, paid tribute to Mr. Wolf’s role as a father, grandfather and great-grandfather.  

“Dad was proud of his community involvement,” said his son Harvey Wolf. “But he derived his greatest satisfaction from his family.”

Burial was at Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery.

In addition to his wife, survivors include sons Harvey Wolf (Leslie) and Michael Wolf.  Another son, Robert Wolf, predeceased him.  Also surviving are seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.  

Memorial contributions preferred to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, Mo., 63146.