Siegmund Halpern, Holocaust escapee and Jewish Federation leader, dies at 96

Siegmund Halpern

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

Siegmund Halpern, who escaped the Holocaust by leaving his native Vienna in 1939 and later became a successful businessman and community leader, died Monday, Aug. 1, in Kansas City. The former longtime resident of St. Louis was 96 and had been in declining health.

Mr. Halpern was admired for his approach to community leadership, respecting the role of the Jewish professionals with whom he worked and using his quiet, diplomatic demeanor to resolve potential disputes or conflicts. 

He served as St. Louis Jewish Federation president from 1977-1978. During his tenure, he helped establish the Block Yeshiva High School and was among national Jewish leaders invited to the White House, where he met President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Halpern was an active member of Congregation B’nai Amoona for 65 years and was a former trustee of the synagogue. He also served on the boards of Jewish Hospital (now Barnes-Jewish), the St. Louis Jewish Light, the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service (now MERS/Goodwill) and the Jewish Community Center. 

He was a member of the board of governors of the local Israel Bond Organization and was a former vice president of the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. He was a member of the Ebn Ezra Lodge of B’nai B’rith and was on the national boards of the American Israel Joint Distribution Committee and the Council of Jewish Federations.

Mr. Halpern was honored for his community service by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, with its annual Brotherhood-Sisterhood Award. Last April, Mr. Halpern was honored, in absentia, as a past president of the Jewish Federation, along with other past presidents and board chairs of the Federation.

Siegmund Halpern was born Nov. 22, 1919, in Vienna, Austria, the son of Majur and Debora Halpern. He attended the Chajes Gymnasium, a unique Jewish day school in Vienna, and later went to the University of Vienna. In 1986, he attended a 50th reunion of his high school class, which was held on an Israeli kibbutz.

In 1938, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany after the Anschluss vote. Mr. Halpern was able to escape from Austria in 1939. He spent several months in Antwerp, Belgium, where he worked until obtaining his visa.

Mr. Halpern followed his childhood sweetheart, Helene Waltuch, to St. Louis, where they were married in 1941.

They had a wonderful marriage, supporting each other and enjoying each other for 62 years until her death in 2003,” said Howard Trilling, his son-in-law.

Mr. Halpern was successful in the garment manufacturing business. He was a co-founder and president of Modern Jacket Co., which became part of MJ Industries. He remained active with the firm until he retired in 1986.

Funeral services were held Aug. 4 at Berger Memorial Chapel, where Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of B’nai Amoona officiated. Rabbi Jeffrey B. Stiffman, emeritus of Congregation Shaare Emeth, and Rabbi Marvin Waltuch, a nephew of Mr. Halpern, offered words of admiration and praise for Mr. Halpern’s generosity, compassion and community leadership.

Barry Rosenberg, past president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, praised Mr. Halpern for his many years of leadership and for serving as a mentor and informal adviser to him and other professionals in the Jewish community.

Rose shared a letter from Rabbi John Moskowitz, emeritus of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and a former St. Louisan, in which he expressed gratitude and admiration for Mr. Halpern’s wisdom, advice and community service. 

Words of tribute also were offered by members of Mr. Halpern’s family, who expressed gratitude for Mr. Halpern’s role as a father, grandfather and source of family wisdom and unity.

Survivors include two daughters, Gerry Trilling (Howard) of Kansas City, and Karen Techner (the late Charlie Silverman) of Boulder, Colo.; a brother, Ernst Halpern of New York; three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Burial was at the B’nai Amoona Cemetery, 930 North and South Road, University City.

Memorial contributions are preferred to the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63146, or Congregation B’nai Amoona, 324 South Mason Road, Creve Coeur, Mo. 63141.