Al Strauss, 79, escaped Nazis and 85 Achille Lauro hijacking

As Al Strauss prepared to embark on a late summer eastern Mediterranean cruise, his daughter, Susan, offered a quiet warning.

"Dad," she said to him. "Take off your Star of David necklace. Don't you realize what part of the world you're going to?"

But Strauss was a proud Jew, a childhood refugee from Nazi Germany, and an American success story. There was no way he would hide his heritage.

Not even after that cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, was hijacked by four murderous Palestinian terrorists in October 1985.

When Strauss died March 11 in his Burlingame home at age 79, friends and family remembered him as the kindest of men, exacting in his personal conduct and ever generous with the Jewish community he loved.

"He was a perfectionist," recalls his daughter, Susan Strauss-Kelley of San Mateo. "He even wrote his own obituary. We found it in his papers at the funeral home." That same obit was sent intact to the local papers this past week. In the days prior to his death from emphysema, Strauss even managed to complete his 2002 tax return.

"We weren't surprised by these things," says Strauss-Kelley. "He wanted everything done right. He was so well organized."

Strauss' ability to see and think clearly served him well, even from a young age. Born Sept. 27, 1924 in Luedinghausen, Germany, Strauss immigrated to Liverpool, England, in 1939 via the Kindertransport. He met up with his father (Strauss' mother and brother perished in Auschwitz), and the two came to California in 1940.

For a time, Strauss' father made a living as one of the famed Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma. But the romanticized picture of their lives that appears in some writings was a far cry from Strauss' experiences.

"Dad used to tell us how much he hated cleaning the coops because they stunk so bad," recalls Strauss-Kelley with a laugh.

Strauss was brought up in an Orthodox home, speaking German with his father, but he quickly adapted to American life. He attended Lowell and Balboa high schools in San Francisco, and later joined the Navy Seabees, serving in the South Pacific.

Trained as an electrician, Strauss was a 55-year member in good standing of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union and worked for more than 28 years for Sierra Switchboard Co.

During that time he married, and he and his wife, Elaine, reared two children, Gerald and Susan. "He was a wonderful father," says Strauss-Kelley. "He was tough — it was usually his way or the highway — but he only wanted the best for his kids."

That meant living the good life, American-style. Strauss loved salmon fishing at Half Moon Bay, listening to classical music and above all, watching 49ers football. "He had season tickets since 1948 and the Kezar Stadium days," says Strauss-Kelley. "He went to two Superbowls with the 49ers and even went to a game two years ago in his wheelchair. He never cheated himself."

Elaine Strauss died in1984, a personal tragedy Strauss never quite got over, according to his daughter. "He said he looked forward to going to heaven to be with Mom," Strauss-Kelley recalls, though she's quick to point out that her father never gave up on life.

As a long-time member of Conservative Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City, Strauss always took seriously his commitment to tikkun olam. He was a Hadassah associate and contributor to the group's hospital in Israel. He also volunteered for the American Cancer Society and drove a van for the Peninsula Blood Bank, even when gravely ill. "He would get behind the wheel, oxygen tank and all," says Strauss-Kelley.

After the death of his wife, Strauss took over her business, Artistic Marble in Redwood City. It was around then that, after a period of grieving, he decided to get back into life and take that Mediterranean cruise.

On board the Achille Lauro, Strauss befriended a fellow Jewish American, a man in a wheelchair named Leon Klinghoffer. With the ship docked at an Egyptian port, Strauss decided to spend some time visiting the pyramids at Giza. The ship departed without him, only to be hijacked. Klinghoffer was later murdered, his body thrown overboard by the terrorists.

That nightmare did not stop Strauss from continuing his travels or from continuing to wear his Magen David wherever he went. He visited Israel several times and saw many other ports of call before his illness caught up with him.

"By the end, Dad would tell us he was sick and tired of being sick and tired," says Strauss-Kelley. "He was on 24-hour oxygen; he couldn't go out. But he was very proud and independent. He wouldn't go to assisted living."

But even as the end grew near, Strauss showed remarkable courage. He even had a DNR (do not resuscitate) notice on his refrigerator.

Says Strauss-Kelley, "Like everything else, he wanted to do it his way."

In addition to his daughter and her husband, Michael Kelley, Strauss is survived by his son, Gerald of Half Moon Bay.

Donations may be made to the American Cancer Society, 235 Montgomery St., Suite. 320, S.F., CA 94104; Multiple Sclerosis Society, 150 Grand Ave., Oakland, CA 94612; Hadassah, 131 Steuart St., Suite. 205, S.F., CA 94105; Temple Beth Jacob, 1550 Alameda de las Pulgas, Redwood City, CA 94061; or the Jewish Community Federation, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA 94105.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.