Abraham Kass, survivior of Auschwitz dies at 83

When Abraham Kass strode through the Outer Sunset District neighborhood he called home for the last 47 years, one could be forgiven for mistaking his healthy gait for that of a man of 50, maybe 60.

Yet once he drew close, you would notice the old-fashioned clothes of an 83-year-old.

Kass, a retired shopkeeper and Auschwitz survivor, shocked family and friends when he died in his sleep at home on Aug. 24. He had received a clean bill of health from a doctor only days before, and was still an energetic and vital man who drove himself around and lived on his own.

“I was telling the medical examiners when they took him away that if I was a betting woman I’d have bet this wouldn’t have happened for another 10 years,” said Diane Connell, Kass’ daughter.

As a young man, Kass cheated death many times. He was born 1924 in the city of Plonsk, Poland, the oldest son of a well-to-do Jewish family (Connell believes her grandparents ran a flour company). Prior to the outbreak of the war when he was 15, Kass had a normal, comfortable childhood.

Neither Kass nor his future wife, Greta, talked much about the war years with their family. But over the decades, Connell gleaned that Kass was quickly separated from his younger brother and parents, who were killed by the Nazis. Along with his uncle, Beryl Neumann, he survived three camps — including Auschwitz — and eventually the pair escaped into the forest during a death march in the war’s closing days.

Living in displaced persons camps in Germany during the late 1940s, Kass made ends meet by running cigarettes on the black market. He and Greta married and his son, Steve, was born.

The couple immigrated to New York in 1949, and moved to San Francisco eight years later. Kass worked hard in a variety of positions until he amassed enough money to open a grocery and liquor store on Sutter and Leavenworth. He was “held up at gunpoint every six months, like clockwork,” recalled Connell.

When he had made a little more money, he sold the liquor store and bought a five-and-dime shop on 24th Ave. and Castro Street. Kass was a sharp businessman who retired at 55 and lived off of his real estate investments.

Friends and family recalled Kass as a quiet man who was loath to express any emotion too quickly — save anger (“If he was upset, he was quick as a whip to let you know it,” recalled his daughter). He was a strenuously hard-working man who took seriously his need to provide for his family through the sweat of his brow.

“I think he was taught as a child that the best thing a man can do for his family is support it. He felt it was of the utmost importance for him to do that and keep his family secure,” Connell said.

“My mother was the one who forced him to go on cruises and to plays. His attitude was, ‘Why waste time doing that when you could be dealing in business?'”

While his wife, Greta, was disillusioned by religion following the Holocaust, Kass remained a pious Jew. He attended Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim for decades — “You knew he was raised nice too, he really knew how to read Hebrew and daven,” recalled longtime friend Sheila Jurkiewicz.

After Greta died in 2001, Kass left the Orthodox shul and attended Conservative Ner Tamid, where he had many friends.

Abraham Kass is survived by his son, Steve Kass of San Francisco, daughter Diane Connell of Napa, companion Jeanette Freydkis and four grandchildren. Donations in his memory can be sent to the Israeli charity of your choice or to Ner Tamid, 1250 Quintara St., S.F, 94116.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.