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Wilf family (USA)

Mr. Joe Wilf speaks during the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Holocaust Museum in May 2000Mr. Joe Wilf speaks during the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Holocaust Museum in May 2000

"There were only two Jews in my class in high school. 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." Joseph Wilf, Chairman of the Campaign for "Yad Vashem 2001" vividly recalls the pervasive antisemitism in pre-war Poland. Yet, 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.

When World War II broke out, Joseph, his siblings Harry and Bella, together with their parents, Oscar and Ella Wilf, were deported by the Russians from their home in Jaroslaw to a Siberian labor camp. All survived, except for Bella who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. The end of the war found them physically and mentally exhausted. While the Wilfs were determined to return to Jaroslaw following the liberation, the pogroms which erupted in Poland in 1946 caused them to flee to the American occupied zone of Germany where Joseph met his future wife, Elizabeth Fisch (known as Suzie).

Elizabeth, daughter of Marcus and Miriam Fisch, was a young girl when the Germans occupied her hometown of Lvov. Yet, the experiences are deeply rooted in her consciousness. She recalls, "We were in the Lvov Ghetto until it was liquidated. With the help of a Jewish friend who was a militiaman, we managed to make our way to the Aryan side. Because my mother had Aryan papers for herself, for my brother Erwin and for me, she was able to secure refuge for us on the farm of a peasant woman. For two years, we hid my father in a dugout under the barn without the knowledge of the peasant woman. At night we took turns and secretly brought him food and an occasional change of clothing. Our family's survival is truly a miracle."

The Wilfs married in 1949, and immigrated to the United States in 1950. In 1954 Joseph and his late brother Harry founded Garden Homes, Inc., a real estate development company in New Jersey. Paralleling their achievements in business are the Wilf's involvement in philanthropic causes and their efforts to enhance the lives of the Jewish people both in the United States and Israel.

Joseph and Harry Wilf were among the original founders of the American Society for Yad Vashem. Today, Joseph is a Vice-Chairman of the Society; he and Elizabeth are benefactors of Yad Vashem's Museum Campaign and of the Valley of the Communities.

In addition, the Wilf Family Foundation supports other Holocaust-related affiliations (Joseph Wilf is Chairman of the March of the Living, North America) and numerous cultural, educational and social endeavors, including, the United Jewish Appeal, Israel Bonds and the Jewish Educational Center of Elizabeth, NJ. Joseph Wilf is Vice-President of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and is also active on behalf of the Jewish Agency, and the Joint Distribution Committee.

Joseph Wilf's many honors and awards include the Louis Brandeis Humanitarian Award of the Zionist Organization of America, the David Ben Gurion Peace medal of the Israel Bond Organization, and an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical College of America.

The Talmud tells us: "Whoever teaches his son teaches not only his son, but also his son's son - and so on to the end of generations." The Wilfs have adhered admirably to this tenet. Their sons, Zygmunt and Mark, both have a passionate yearning to serve the Jewish people in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. A third son, Sidney, who was also actively involved in Jewish communal activities, died in 1989. He is survived by one son, Jeffrey.

Zygmunt, an attorney and a partner in Garden Homes, Inc., recently joined his father and his 17 year-old son, Jason, on the 1998 March of the Living. "Seeing the sites of the destruction first-hand, I became painfully aware of the fragility of the Jews during the Shoah. For Jason, it was a unique opportunity to learn about the most tragic period of Jewish history and to be connected with his grandparents' roots." Zygmunt serves on the Board of the American Society for Yad Vashem and actively supports the work of the Shoah Foundation and the Holocaust education programs which are mandatory in New Jersey. Similarly, he is actively involved in Israeli and local communal affairs.

He is married to the former Audrey Schwartz. In addition to their son Jason, they have another son, Jonathan and two daughters, Elana and Stephanie.

Mark Wilf, an attorney and partner in Garden Homes, Inc., is Chair of the 2005 UJA Federation Campaign of United Jewish Communities. He is married to the former Jane Frieder and together they represent the vanguard of the Yad Vashem Young Leadership. Mark and Jane have lent their leadership talents and energies to a variety of Jewish communal endeavors, including the Jewish Educational Center and Israel Bonds. They have three children - Steven, Daniel and Rachel.

In 1985, Mark Wilf, then 23 years old had a defining and life-transforming experience. Like his older brother, he accompanied his father on a trip to Poland and Russia. The primary purpose of the trip was to revisit the pre-war homes of his parents. Mark says, "The two weeks were an eye-opener. I knew my parents were survivors, but I didn't know many of the specifics. I was struck by the fact that there were no Jews left in their towns, despite the fact that they had previously been thriving centers of Jewish life. Yet, how normal it all seemed - the apartments, the schools, the main streets were unchanged. The old people from their neighborhood remembered my parents and had assumed that they had perished along with all the other Jews. At that moment, I became determined to spare no effort to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish people."