Holocaust survivor, deli owner, Joseph Schneider, dies at 88

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Joseph Schneider is the classic example of the American success story.

A Holocaust survivor, he arrived in the United States with nearly nothing to show for himself. But over the years, he worked incredibly hard (always sacrificing a good night’s sleep for a double shift) and made a good living for his family.

Schneider died in San Francisco on Tuesday, Aug. 2. He was 88.

He was born in Kotzk, Poland, on May 5, 1917. The son of a farmer, he was one of four children; two brothers and one sister.

In 1939, shortly before the war began, he married Rose Kurcant.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, in 1939, he no longer felt safe in Poland, so he, his wife and sister fled for Russia, which at that time, had open borders.

Schneider’s wife gave birth to their daughter, Sonia, shortly before they were separated by the war. She wound up in a garment factory sewing army uniforms, while he worked in a munitions factory in Siberia.

The Schneiders were reunited in 1944, before the war ended. The rest of Schneider’s immediate family, except for his sister who also fled, was killed.

When the war ended, they landed in a displaced persons camp in Hofgeismar, Germany, where their son, Jack, was born in 1947.

The Schneiders planned to go to Palestine, but then Rose found out she had a long-lost uncle in Belgium. She managed to contact him, and when she did, he arranged for the four of them to be smuggled over the border.

Schneider became a cabinetmaker, working for his wife’s uncle in his factory, until 1954, when he decided to bring the family to the United States.

The agency that sponsored them sent them to Tucson, Ariz., but while in New York, Schneider had a random encounter that changed their fate.

“He meets some guy in New York that tells him it’s too hot in the summer in Tucson, so he says ‘Well, where are you going?’ and he says ‘I’m going to San Francisco, the weather is much better,’ so he decides to come here,” said his son, Jack Schneider of San Francisco.

The Schneiders arrived in San Francisco, and Joseph Schneider did not speak a word of English. After two years, he was able to work again as a cabinetmaker.

Rose did whatever work she could find, until Joseph saved enough to buy a small delicatessen, called Alhambra Delicatessen on Geary Street.

He continued to work as a cabinetmaker by day while his wife ran the deli. At night, she would go home, and he would work the evening shift. He got maybe five hours of sleep a night, his son said, working seven days a week.

“He was one of the hardest workers ever,” said Schneider.

A few years later, Rose Schneider became too ill to work at the deli so they sold the deli, and then he bought Bill’s Foodbasket, where he worked the next several years.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, he did really well,” his son said. “He was very astute and eventually was able to sell the grocery store and become independent.”

Schneider was a member of Congregation Adath Israel, but while he attended services sometimes, he was not very active, his son said, because he had no time for anything but work.

In 1993, Schneider suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed on one side. And in 1995, he underwent bypass surgery.

In addition to his son, Jack Schneider, Schneider is survived by his daughter, Sonia Apfelblum; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Rose, predeceased him in 1997.

Contributions in his memory can be sent to Adath Israel, 1851 Noriega St., S.F., 94122.

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."