You can see him toward the back of the black-and-white photo, his face and body partially obscured by another prisoner. He is the shortest among the group walking through the frame of the photo taken on April 29, 1945, during the Dachau death march. “That was the end of the war, and they were going to kill us,” Leo Wolf recalls. “I was able to escape a couple times, finally hiding in a hut until the Americans came a few days later.”
A survivor of the Holocaust, Leo spent years in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, finding ways to save himself time and again. “At one point, my cousin and I found a diamond and gave it to a guard in exchange for some bread. And any time they needed someone to do a job or go somewhere, I volunteered to make myself valuable.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Leo’s future wife, Sara Najman, a childhood friend in Lodz, Poland, briefly spent time at Auschwitz, as well. Sara and her two sisters were sent there after being separated from their mother and removed from the ghetto in Lodz. “I was only 11 years old, but I told the officials I was 21,” Sara says. “Everyone had told me, If you say you’re older, you might survive. That probably saved me.”
Eventually ending up at Bergen- Belsen, Sara, her sisters and a cousin worked in the salt mines and stuck together to survive until the camps were liberated. “We watched out for each other. If someone couldn’t get up and go to work, we’d pick her up and hold her when they came to count everyone.”
After Leo reconnected with Sara in a displaced-persons camp following the war, the couple married and moved to St. Louis in 1948. “I didn’t want to go back to Poland. I didn’t have anyone left in my family—I had nothing left there,” he says.
While Leo and Sara began their new life in America, it was important for them to make sure the past and those they lost— including Sara’s mother—were not just forgotten.“We lost 6 million Jews—I had to do something to honor them,” he explains.
While the couple’s harrowing experiences during World War II are almost incomprehensible, their stories provide a valuable education and are the backbone behind the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center (HLMC), which Leo helped found in 1995.
Beginning in the 1960s, Leo worked diligently with Bill Kahn, Tom Green and the St. Louis Jewish Federation to raise funds and overcome multiple obstacles before the HLMC finally opened its doors. As owner of a construction company, L. Wolf Co., which is still run by his sons today, Leo was hands-on with the building of the 5,000-square-foot museum, which features photographs, artifacts and moving personal testimonies. “It wasn’t easy to put together, but it was important that we succeeded,” he says.
The HLMC will honor the couple’s tireless efforts and commitment to the museum with a dinner on Aug. 5 at Marriott St. Louis West. The Wolfs are humbled by the recognition and look forward to spending the evening with many friends and family members, including their seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. But more important, Leo and Sara call attention to the lessons about the Holocaust that the museum has been able to impart on thousands of young people every day. “There are busloads of students who come to the museum and learn what happened during that time,” Leo says. “It’s very important for the next generation to understand what went on— we can’t let it happen again.”