Emil Knopf with a Sinai Memorial Chapel hat on at Sinai's Hanukkah outreach booth in San Francisco's Union Square, 2022. Sinai was one of many Jewish organizations Knopf donated his time to over the years. (Courtesy)
Emil Knopf with a Sinai Memorial Chapel hat on at Sinai's Hanukkah outreach booth in San Francisco's Union Square, 2022. Sinai was one of many Jewish organizations Knopf donated his time to over the years. (Courtesy)

Emil Knopf, Holocaust survivor, Levi Strauss executive, community volunteer dies at 91

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Emil Knopf had a favorite expression, according to his niece Yola Kalinski. However vexing the circumstances may appear, he would invariably say, “It’s no big deal.”

As a Jewish Holocaust survivor, who hid as a child in the Polish forests before reaching Bolivia and, ultimately, San Francisco, Knopf knew what was and what wasn’t a big deal. Starting as an errand runner at Levi Strauss & Co. and eventually becoming a senior executive: That was a big deal. Becoming one of the most connected Bay Area Jewish community volunteers over a 50-year span: That, too, was a big deal.

A classic American success story, Knopf devoted his life and wealth to giving back to his community. He died in San Francisco on July 1 of natural causes at the age of 91.

“When it came to philanthropy and organizations, he was quite a person,” recalled Wayne Sosnick, board president of Sinai Memorial Chapel, an organization Knopf served for decades as a lay leader.  “He had his opinions on how this or that should be done, but whatever role he took, most of the time his opinion was what everyone wanted.”

“He very much loved to be part of the Jewish community,” added niece Belia Wartens. “He belonged to so many organizations. He was always involved with the Federation, with Sinai Memorial, the Jewish Community Library, the Contemporary Jewish Museum. He did a lot for all of these.”

Knopf was born Jan. 7, 1933 in Rzeszów, Poland. Once Hitler invaded in September 1939, the German army murdered Knopf’s father, a shoemaker and Polish Army reservist. Knopf’s mother, Rose, and her two children hid in the forest for several years, protected by partisans.

After the war, Knopf lived in France for a time before making his way to Bolivia, where he became fluent in Spanish. In 1953 at age 19, he resettled in San Francisco to start a new life. Referred by Jewish Family and Children’s Services to Levi Strauss & Co., Knopf landed an entry-level job at its San Francisco headquarters. The company’s leaders at the time, Walter Haas Sr. and Daniel Koshland, had a policy of providing jobs to Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors.

Dianne Feinstein with a denim sling Emil Knopf (left) made for her. (Courtesy Levi Strauss & Co.)

While working, Knopf took classes at S.F. State University and, later, at the Salinger School of Design.

The education paid off. He began working his way up the ladder, eventually managing night-shift production at the company’s Valencia Street factory and ultimately becoming chief designer and youthwear design department manager. Knopf also grew close to Levi Strauss execs Peter Haas and Walter Haas Jr., both of whom were pillars of the Bay Area Jewish community. 

“He was there for 45 years,” said Tracey Panek, historian and director of archives for Levi Strauss. “He was in charge of coming up with lines of clothing, working to create samples and having them tested. It struck me that he was so much like Levi Strauss himself. He was a Jewish immigrant seeking a better life. Levi never married, and neither did Emil. Levi’s employees called him Uncle Levi.”

Knopf lived in San Francisco with his mother until her death in 1981. Though he had no children and never became a U.S. citizen, he was devoted to his sister, his nieces and the many great-nephews and great-nieces to follow. He hosted the annual family Hanukkah party, an occasion family members say cemented his status as family patriarch.

“We were very close and saw each other very often,” Wartens said. “But he never shared anything of his hobbies or things that he liked. None of that. When the subject was Levi’s, he could make a conversation that would never end. But about his private life he’d say nothing.”

He was also reluctant to share much about his early years. Even close family and friends knew little about his harrowing wartime experiences. Instead, he focused on the present. While still with Levi Strauss, he became a founding member of the company’s Community Involvement Team, and his charitable work only expanded from there.

After retiring in 1997, he worked with a host of organizations. He served multiple terms as president of his B’nai B’rith lodge and of his shul, Congregation Adath Israel.  Knopf routinely manned the phones at Super Sunday, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s longtime annual fundraising campaign. He lit candles on Yom HaShoah at the Holocaust Memorial in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. And he worked tirelessly on behalf of the American Heart Association, Sinai Memorial Chapel and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

He was especially proud to attend opening night of the exhibit “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” in February 2020. Unfortunately, Covid-19 shut down the museum — and everything else — a few weeks later, though the exhibit ultimately came back once the pandemic subsided.

Knopf remained active until the end. With his custom denim briefcase in hand, he would attend every Sinai Memorial Chapel board meeting, even as an honorary board member, even until recently.

In 2013, Knopf, then 80, made it onto the pages of this publication when he was interviewed as a volunteer with Project Homeless Connect, a program of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health that stages events to connect homeless clients with needed services. When asked what drew him to the event, Knopf replied simply, “I like to stay involved.”

Donations in his memory can be made to any of the nonprofits he supported.

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.