September 18, 2018

Joseph Wilf, Holocaust survivor and major Jewish philanthropist, dies at 91

Joseph Wilf, a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor and founder of one of the country’s largest real estate development companies, has died at 91.

He and his brother Harry founded the Wilf Family Foundation in 1964 and have since contributed more than $200 million to Jewish causes. Joseph was a founder of the American Society for Yad Vashem, a U.S.-based fundraising arm for the Israeli Holocaust museum, and a benefactor behind Yeshiva University’s Wilf campus in New York City.

Wilf, the father of Minnesota Vikings owners Zygmunt “Zygi” Wilf and Mark Wilf, passed away Wednesday at his home in Hillside, New Jersey, according to information released by his family.

The cause of death was not specified.

Wilf was born in Jaroslaw, Poland in 1925. During World War II, he was deported with his brother and his parents to a Siberian work camp. They all survived but did not go back to Poland when anti-Semitic pogroms erupted there after the war. His sister Bella died in the Warsaw Ghetto.

“There were only two Jews in my class in high school,” Wilf recalled in remarks during the groundbreaking for a new museum at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial in 2000. “We were totally isolated from the rest of the students. We were not allowed to participate in sports, no one ever talked to us and the teachers were distant. It was as if there was an organized boycott against the Jews.”

He and his wife Elizabeth — known as Suzie — married in Germany in 1949. The Wilfs eventually migrated to the United States where he founded the Garden Homes real estate company, which has since built over 100 shopping centers and housing developments.

Joseph Wilf’s many honors include the Louis Brandeis Humanitarian Award from the Zionist Organization of America and honorary degrees from Yeshiva University, Kean University and the Rabbinical College of America. Among the institutions and causes he supported were the former Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, United Jewish Appeal, Israel Bonds, the Jewish Museum, Park East Synagogue, Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

“Despite discrimination and the horrors of the Holocaust, Joseph’s life and that of his extended family stand as eloquent testimony to the heroism and tenacity of the Jewish people,” read a statement issued by his family.

In addition to his wife and and sons, Wilf is survived by daughters-in-law Audrey and Jane, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He is predeceased by his son Sidney.

Mark Wilf is a member of the board of directors of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent company.