Obituaries | David Apfelbaum, deli founder and stalwart Israel supporter, dies at 85

At David’s Delicatessen in San Francisco, the chopped liver is hand-chopped 1,179 times, according to the menu. Sounds odd until one learns that restaurateur David Apfelbaum, who wrote that menu, had a concentration camp tattoo on his arm: number 1,179.

Add up those digits and they total 18, chai in Jewish numerology, signifying life. Apfelbaum survived the horrors of the Holocaust, going on to live a full and productive life as a  San Francisco restaurant legend and friend of the Jewish community.

David Apfelbaum at the deli about 6 years ago photo/save the deli-david sax

Apfelbaum died May 4 in a San Francisco hospital following a lengthy illness. He was 85.

“I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation,” said his son, Efraim Wyeth. “He served 100 breakfasts, 100 lunches and 100 dinners seven days a week for 56 years … Within 1 percent, it came to 6 million.”

Though he made his living feeding people, Apfelbaum’s thoughts never strayed far from the Holocaust, Israel and the survival of the Jewish people. After the war, he shepherded hundreds of Jewish orphans to pre-state Israel.

He later launched one of the first Holocaust oral history projects. And he befriended scores of senior Israeli leaders, from Moshe Dayan to Yitzhak Rabin, all of whom swung by the restaurant when on official visits to the Bay Area.

“He was the place,” said friend John Rothmann. “He sat at the same seat on the counter. People came to him, spoke to him. He was fair and honest, a mensch in every way.”

Born into a cosmopolitan family in Lodz, Poland, in 1929, Apfelbaum and his family were swept up in the Nazi invasion 10 years later. He survived the ghetto and the camps, enduring torment, starvation and typhus.

Though his father perished, his mother and three siblings survived, reuniting after the war. Apfelbaum met his future wife, Nusia, in a displaced persons camp after the war. But before starting a new life in America, he had work to do.

David Apfelbaum photo/courtesy efraim wyeth

While living in Germany, Apfelbaum served as an agent of Bricha (Hebrew for  “escape”), a clandestine Jewish organization that ferried Jews into pre-state Israel.

A typical group would be 30 or 40 kids from a refugee camp, but sometimes there were 80 or more. Apfelbaum would load them into a train, flatbed trucks or horse carts, or they might even walk all night.

Ultimately he passed them on to the next Bricha agent and the children continued their journey to Israel.

“There was one time when we had 85 or 86 youngsters moving from Czechoslovakia to Western Germany,” he told J. in 2008. “All of a sudden, I heard some dogs barking. So I must admit, I did something crazy. I started a fire. I figured [the police] would run toward the fire, so I told the children to run the other direction.”

The Apfelbaums ultimately settled in the United States, opening a jewelry business in New York City. Only one problem: the climate.

“He didn’t like the heat,” Wyeth said. “On the hottest day on record, he heard that San Francisco was the air-conditioned city. He sold everything, came to San Francisco, went out the door and came back that evening with a lease agreement for a fruit stand.”

That fruit stand grew into a corner store. In 1952, after despairing about the sorry state of delicatessens in the city, he opened his own and named it for himself.

“He went to the theater district and saw the spot he wanted,” Wyeth said. “Everyone told him he’d never get the lease because the landlord was a notorious anti-Semite. He came out with a lease.”

David’s Delicatessen became the most popular deli chain in the Bay Area. It grew to 16 stores at one point, but a series of financial problems took its toll, eventually eliminating all but the Geary Street restaurant that still stands today.

Apfelbaum was a hands-on restaurateur who took pride in his food. In his 2009 book “Save the Deli,” author David Sax wrote about the blintzes at David’s:

Apfelbaum’s deli in San Francisco opened in 1952.

“It resembled a Parisian crepe: all flat, thin and bubbled crisp along every inch of the surface. It was smothered in a dark, sugary blueberry sauce and two generous dollops of sour cream … It was simply the best blintz I ever had.”

Meanwhile, Apfelbaum continued to do all he could for his fellow Jews. He supported organizations such as the Jewish National Fund and Israel Bonds. He visited Israel more than 50 times and got to know its leaders. During a recent hospitalization for gallstones, he told a writer, he received more than 600 cards and 160 phone calls from Israel.

Apfelbaum understood that collecting testimonies from survivors was key to Holocaust education. He started the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project with the late Lani Silver in 1981; the project went on to preserve the testimonies of 1,400 survivors and witnesses.

“He said we survived to bear witness to what has happened to our so-called civilization,” Rothmann said. “We who came through this ordeal alive have been entrusted a vital mission. We must find the strength to live up to our responsibility, and that was to give testimony. When we are gone, this will be our legacy.”

Also part of his legacy: countless random acts of Jewish kindness.

When war between Israel and its Arab neighbors broke out in June 1967, Apfelbaum sent his waitresses out on the streets of San Francisco to raise money for Israel, money he promptly gave to the Israeli consulate.

When the Concordia Club burned down in 1982, he turned over the second floor of his restaurant to the club until it could rebuild.

Apfelbaum, who boasted that he was the first to market bagel chips, sold his restaurant five years ago, not long after the death of his first wife. He lived in retirement after that, but was never short on the love of friends, family and a grateful Jewish community.

“Everyone thinks of him as a restaurateur,” said his son, “but his real passion was doing what he could to support the Jewish community in Israel and the United States, to bear witness to the Holocaust and contribute however he could. The restaurant fueled his ability to take that interest. The projects were the ends; the restaurant was the means.”

David Apfelbaum is survived by his second wife, Cassandra Kelling, his son, Efraim Wyeth, and his brother, Harold Apfelbaum, all of of San Francisco. A funeral was held May 6 at Salem Memorial Park in Colma.

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.