Elizabeth “Suzie” Wilf remembers having nowhere else to hide from the Germans. Aunts, uncles, cousins, a grandmother, friends she went to school with, all had been led away, never to be seen again.
“When the Germans came, the Jews were put in the ghetto, an encircled barrier,” she said. “From time to time, the Germans would come in and do a roundup. My parents decided it eventually would happen to us.”
Suzie is mother to Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf. In 1943, she was a child living with parents Markus and Miriam Fisch and younger brother Erwin in Lvov, Poland.
Hitler’s Nazi regime, which started World War II with the invasion of Poland in 1939, sent many of the Jews from the Lvov ghetto to the Belzec death camp about 55 miles away. More than 500,000 of the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust perished at Belzec from March 1942 to June 1943.
But fate and a brave, resourceful woman named Miriam would preserve the family’s lineage. Because of Miriam, Zygi and Mark rooted against their boyhood idols, the New York Giants, from the opposite owners’ box at TCF Bank Stadium this past Sunday. Because of Miriam, Zygi and Mark exist. Period.
“She really rescued the family,” Mark said. “She had the strength and luck to do it. She lived a long life, and I was close to her. She is one of the heroes of my life.”
With the help of a Jewish militiaman, Miriam obtained documents identifying her to the Gestapo as a Christian woman with two Christian children.
“We wound up working for a woman who owned a farm, so we were able to hide my father in the barn under the floor boards,” Suzie said. “Nearly two years we spent on that farm. That’s where we were when we were liberated after the war.”
“They could have been caught at any point,” Mark added. “If the woman who owned the farm had known they were Jewish or found my grandfather, she would have turned them in to the Germans.”
Seventy years later, Zygi emerges from the tunnel at TCF Bank Stadium before the Vikings play the Chargers on a warm, sunny fall day. The hair, the mustache, the dark sunglasses and the gray suit with the always-purple tie cut a recognizable billion-dollar figure. Fans shout encouragement and appreciation for everything from hiring coach Mike Zimmer to having the poise and perseverance that predecessor Red McCombs lacked in the political struggle to build the stadium that now guarantees the Vikings’ future in Minnesota.
Mark follows, quietly fist-bumping Viktor, the team mascot. Zygi, the 65-year-old team chairman, is more big-picture, more emotional, “harder to be around on game day,” he says with a chuckle. Mark, the 53-year-old president, is more process-oriented, more deliberate. They celebrate Vikings fans repeatedly and get a kick out of it when they hear people often refer to Zygi as Mark’s dad.
Their father, Joe Wilf, is their role model, their childhood head start on a bountiful life, the reason there’s a Wilf Family Foundation that’s donated more than $200 million to the Jewish community and Israel over the past 51 years. Still living in New Jersey, Joe and his late brother, Harry, also Holocaust survivors from Poland, founded Garden Homes, the Short Hills, N.J.-based real estate development business that’s now in its 61st year and stretches to a third generation of Wilfs.
“Being competitive in whatever we do is part of our DNA,” Zygi said. “In the first few years as owner, I felt more like a kid in a candy shop. I said, ‘Wow.’ All these guys who I dreamed of and I’m on the field with them. That was the first five years. The second five years it’s been, here’s the reality. All I can say is as I get older, it gets harder to lose.”
But perseverance is another strength the Wilfs attribute to being second-generation Holocaust survivors.
“We’re going to make mistakes and be reminded of those mistakes,” Zygi said. “The last 10 years have been a learning experience. But what we learned with the stadium and what we learned with the team is you have to have a lot of patience to get from A to Z.”
‘They had nothing’
Before southern Poland was occupied by Hitler’s Third Reich, the country was split up between Germany and the Soviet Union. Oscar and Ella Wilf were driven by the Russians from their home in Jaroslaw to a Siberian labor camp. Joe and Harry went with them, while their sister, Bella, stayed behind. The family believes Bella died in the Warsaw ghetto.
“My father and Zygi’s father survived the war sticking together,” said Lenny Wilf, 68, Harry’s son and Vikings part-owner/vice chairman. “I tell people my late father and my uncle didn’t share a room. They shared a bed. They had nothing.
“And my mother’s family, all were killed at Belzec, except for my mother and one sister. Her parents, three brothers and two other sisters. All killed.”
After the war, the Wilfs intended to return to life in Jaroslaw. But the 1946 pogroms — violent anti-Semitic outbreaks against Jews — caused them to head for Augsburg, Germany, in the American-occupied zone near Munich.
“When I was in my 20s, we went back to Poland and Russia to see where my father grew up,” Mark said. “He showed me his home in Jaroslaw. I saw that he had a childhood [before German occupation] that was not too different than what I had. We saw my mother’s house and the childhood that both of them lost. It was a powerful trip.”
Joe and Suzie met in the American-occupied zone in Germany. They applied for American citizenship, were married and as they waited and hoped, Zygmunt was born on April 22, 1950. Two months later, the Wilfs were on their way to America, having been sponsored by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society and the Jewish community in Birmingham, Ala.
“There was no way we could stay in Europe,” Suzie said. “Our dream was to come to America.”
Growing up Giants fans
Once upon a time, Wellington Mara’s New York Giants were almost all that mattered to young Zygi and Lenny, who still hasn’t thrown out his eighth grade Riddell football helmet. Zygi played competitive tennis but was a backyard football enthusiast as he and Lenny grew up practically as brothers in adjoining homes in Hillside, N.J.
“I’ll make it simple,” Lenny said. “Zygi had great passion for football. But the talent was minimal.”
Upon arriving in America, Joe Wilf originally went to Birmingham to work in a steel mill. Not long after, when Harry’s family arrived from Germany, the Wilf brothers were reunited in New Jersey.
“How did two brothers go from sharing a bed growing up to all their success?” Lenny asks. “Honestly, I just think they outworked everybody else.
“If you can’t figure it out right away, roll up your sleeves and figure it out. That’s kind of been the methodology in the family over the years. Translating that to the NFL, we came in and we knew absolutely nothing. We rolled up our sleeves, and I think we’re getting to the point now where we’re getting it right.”
In 1959, Joe and Harry bought Giants season tickets at old Yankee Stadium. They knew nothing about football, but Ralph Loveys, a business partner who had played for Middlebury College in Vermont, suggested season tickets as a way for immigrant fathers to bond with and Americanize their sons.
“They had four seats in right field, and Zygi and I sat in the old bleachers,” Lenny said. “My favorite memory as a kid is going to Giants games at 1 o’clock, take the subway back to dinner and then go to the 7 o’clock New York Rangers hockey games that night. For a kid, that’s heaven.”
Loveys had friends who were Giants players. Joe and Harry began building homes for the players. Soon, Zygi and Lenny were in the locker room after games. Each has a white football autographed by all the players. Zygi still has his sitting on the desk in his office in New Jersey.
Joe was approached with opportunities to join groups to buy the old New York Titans and the Philadelphia Eagles. He wasn’t interested.
“The Giants in the ’60s and ’70s lost lots of games,” Zygi said. “I would be very distraught about the way we lost games. My father used to always go, ‘Don’t feel so bad. Think how the owner must feel.’ Here I am now, and I know exactly how the owner feels.”
Time to win
Off the field, the Wilfs have extended their philanthropy locally with efforts such as this year’s $5 million Wilf Family Center at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. They have been leaders in diversity by making Kevin Warren the NFL’s first black chief operating officer and its highest-ranking black business executive. And, like their father before them, they have shared responsibilities with the next generation, most notably making Jonathan Wilf, Zygi’s son, an executive vice president and essentially a young owner in training.
Meanwhile, U.S. Bank Stadium, which will open next season, was a high priority that tested everyone’s patience before an agreement was reached in which the public would pay $498 million while the team/private portion would pay $477 million. The Wilfs have paid an additional $101 million for enhancements to the fan experience.
The stadium remains a controversial topic, but there’s no question the Vikings aren’t leaving home. That might not be the case for the Chargers, Rams and Raiders, three teams the Vikings played this season and three teams that applied for relocation to Los Angeles.
“Would the Vikings have been on that list to move to Los Angeles?” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, repeating the question. “I don’t know what would have happened. But my hat’s off to the people of Minnesota that didn’t allow that to happen. The people of Minnesota stood up and said, ‘We want the Vikings here,’ and just as importantly, the Wilfs stood up long ago and said, ‘We want to be here.’ ”
On the field, the Vikings have made three playoff appearances with one win in 10 years. But there is optimism. Zimmer, the second-year head coach, and general manager Rick Spielman, now in his 10th season with the team and fourth as general manager, have the 9-5 Vikings positioned to make the playoffs heading into Week 16.
Before Spielman was named general manager with final say on personnel, the Wilfs had to make final decisions when there were disagreements between coaches and the personnel department. Too many times, the owners who didn’t feel qualified to make football-related decisions had to because of a stalemate of opinions.
“We put a lot of effort into making sure we got the structure right,” Mark said. “We put a lot of effort into making sure we have the GM that can evaluate talent. We took a lot of time traveling around the country interviewing many coaches.
“Mike Zimmer is the whole package, and that came through very clearly. What happened with him in past interviews with other teams, I have no idea. We’re excited about this year and the future.”
From Spielman’s perspective, the Wilfs walk the line between “staying informed, letting you do your job” and providing the necessary resources.
“In the 10 years I’ve been here,” Spielman said, “there has never been a time they’ve said no to providing the resources we need for us to do what we have to do to try and win now and in the future.”
The future is something Suzie and Joe focused on without sharing stories of the Holocaust until Zygi and Mark were grown. Now, Suzie has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She’s often asked to share her stories in her grandchildren’s grade schools so the Holocaust is never forgotten.
“It was not easy to go back to those times,” she said. “We pushed away the memories of those life-threatening times and took to the good life of America. Americans should be more appreciative of America and be more tolerant. Even with all the things going on, it’s still the best country in the world.”