Don Felson, partisan fighter, East Bay developer, 72

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Don Felson often threw parties on the Fourth of July.

"He had a great love for America," said his first cousin, Don Ungar, of San Francisco. "He felt a debt to this country because it gave him freedom and the opportunity to flourish and prosper."

Felson, a Holocaust survivor and real estate developer, died April 4 of lung cancer. A resident of Hayward, he was 72.

Born in Glubbock, Poland, in 1929, Felson was a teenager when the Germans invaded Poland. "There was no resistance by the Poles," he once told a reporter. "By then, Poland was smashed, beaten by the Germans."

Felson and his older brother, Stan, spent most of the war fighting with the partisans affiliated with the White Russian army.

"He fought Nazi convoys and blew up railroads toward the tail end of the war," said his eldest son, Joe Felson of Oakland. "They were successful in pushing back some incursions."

Because of poor health, Felson's father stayed back in Glubbock and was eventually deported and killed. His mother and a younger brother managed to flee, but they were eventually caught and killed in an ambush in a forest.

After the war, both Felson brothers ended up in a displaced persons camp in Berlin. They knew they had an aunt, Katie Ungar, in San Francisco, and with her help, they came here in 1946.

At first, Felson worked in the dry goods business. While up in Seattle, he met Ada Nahon, the daughter of a man with whom he did business. They married in 1950 and lived in Seattle.

Shortly after they married, Felson was drafted to serve in a special services unit with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Because of his fluency in Russian and German, he was sent back to Germany.

"It was the last place he wanted to be," said his son, both because he was a newlywed and because the country was Germany.

Nonetheless, he went willingly, as he felt indebted to the United States. Joe Felson was born while his father was away.

Shortly after he returned from Germany, a cousin in Hayward, Saul Marcus, convinced Felson to join his construction business. In 1952, he founded Felson Builders, based in Hayward. The company, still run by Felson's sons, has developed more than 2,000 apartments, as well as condominiums, single-family homes and commercial buildings in the East Bay.

Felson was not one to dwell on the past, and he taught by example, his son said. In the family business, "he made it work…He was the glue or kind of leader who could foment the kind of relationships we needed to work together as brothers."

Felson described his father as extremely unassuming and unpretentious. At his memorial service, there were people from all walks of life, he said, mayors as well as hourly wage earners who worked for him.

"He was a very open person who was friendly to everyone," said Joe Felson. "He always had the time to spend, either trying to help someone or being a sounding board. He always gave time without any restraints or agenda."

Felson was not particularly religious, his son said, but he was a strong Zionist.

He supported many housing and civic organizations, as well as the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and Temple Beth Sholom of San Leandro.

"An institution in the East Bay Jewish community" was how Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, described Felson.

"Through his synagogue and federation involvement and philanthropy and raising three incredibly committed, involved sons, all of whom are Jewish community leaders in their own right, he made a special place for himself in this community," said Nahshon.

In addition to his son Joe, Felson is survived by sons' Richard of Castro Valley and Elliot of San Francisco; brother Stan of Hayward and six grandchildren, Adam, Blake, Zachary, Jayme, Kara and Sophia Felson. His wife, Ada, died six years ago.

Send donations to the Don and Ada Felson Family Philanthropic Fund, c/o Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, 401 Grand Ave., Oakland, CA 94610.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."