Connecticut mourns the passing of a life devoted to strengthening the Jewish community at home and throughout the world.
The story of Simon Konover is the stuff of legend, the Holocaust survivor who endured the horrors and privations of war and eventually built one of the most successful real estate businesses in the U.S.
Konover passed away at age 93 on Oct. 20 in Delray Beach, Fla. He leaves behind his wife of 66 years, Doris; daughter and son-in-law, Jane and Robert Coppa; son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Vicki Konover; and son, Steven Konover. He is also survived by grandchildren, Karen Coppa and her husband Eric Kleinman, David Coppa, Kimberle Konover, and Gregory Konover and his wife Elise, as well as three great-grandchildren.
Konover’s legacy extends beyond his family and business to a deep commitment to philanthropic giving that touches both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
One of seven children, Simon Konover was born in 1922 in Makow Mazowiecki, a shtetl in the Warsaw province of Poland. During the Depression, David, an older half-brother, emigrated to Hartford.
At the outbreak of World War II, there were some 3,500 Jews in Makow Mazowiecki. Konover was 16 when the Germans arrived. He was conscripted for forced labor, cleaning streets and gutters, and after two weeks was sent to a labor farm, harvesting food for the Wehrmacht. He escaped with seven other prisoners and was one of three to survive and return home. When it was clear that the Gestapo would find him, his parents convinced him and a younger brother to flee. His brother went back to the shtetl and Simon made his way to the Russian side, 40 kilometers away. Konover would never see his parents or younger brother again.
In Lomza, a Soviet-occupied city in northeast Poland, he reunited with an older brother, Harold, who had been taken as a POW by the Russian army at the start of the war. The two found work in the town, but were forced to relocate to Pinsk by the Russian authorities. In June 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union; Simon and his brother fled to Stalingrad, where Konover was conscripted to fight in the Red Army. He ended up working primarily as a truck driver, assigned to deliver ammunition to soldiers on the front lines. During the Battle of Stalingrad, he witnessed the horrible brutality of the war and the scenes of extreme starvation and suffering by soldiers and civilians alike.
He was charged with disobeying orders and sentenced to three years of hard labor in the Siberian gulag. The harsh punishment ended up saving his life, as his former convoy was destroyed by German fighter planes. When the war was over in the Soviet Union, he managed to reunite with his brother in Stalingrad, whom he had not seen in 11 months, and the two made their way to Paris.
David Konover helped the two secure passage to the U.S. They spent 11 months in Cuba, then continued on to Hartford to join him. David owned a flooring company and put Simon to work. Simon rose through the ranks, becoming a supervisor and starting the Simon Konover Company in West Hartford in 1957.
Since then, the Simon Konover Company and Konover South, based in Deerfield Beach, Fla., have developed, constructed, owned, and operated commercial and residential properties throughout the Midwest and eastern U.S., with a portfolio ranging from shopping centers, hotels, residential communities, office buildings, industrial buildings, and mixed-use and specialty properties.
Konover incorporated philanthropy into his business since its inception, establishing the Doris and Simon Konover Family Foundation, where he served as a trustee.
“If I am able to make more money, I’ll be able to give more away,” he told the Ledger in a 2011 interview. “My philosophy comes from my father and mother and family. When I left home to run away from the Nazis, the last words my father said were, ‘Simon, remember who you are and where you come from.’ Those few words meant a lot – I knew he meant to be good, to help where you can, and be charitable and nice. That’s how he lived his life. We didn’t have much money but when a stranger would come to our house, my father would invite him to eat with us and give him a place to sleep, or spend the Sabbath with us. He helped start a Hebrew school. He was always involved in helping other people.”
As a philanthropist, Konover began by supporting Jewish philanthropies, and then expanded his giving as he made more money.
“It all started with my Jewish identity and with the mistreatment I felt in Poland,” he said in 2011. “We were citizens but yet we couldn’t get a job in the government and other professions. We felt like second class citizens. I had friends who would say that if something was going on, we shouldn’t mix in, but should stay out of it. But I think we should mix in and be involved and I teach my children to also be involved.”
Simon and Doris were founding members of Beth El Temple in West Hartford in 1953.
“I am among the multitudes to whom Simon Konover characteristically would begin a conversation by saying, ‘How can I be of help to you?’ Such words were uttered from the bottom of his magnanimous heart,” recalled Rabbi Stanley Kessler, rabbi emeritus at Beth El, who knew the Konovers for more than 60 years. “I loved him and will miss his earthly presence so long as I shall continue to live.”
At the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Konover served as annual campaign chairman from 1975 to 1977 and as president from 1983 to 1985. He would later be honored by the Federation as a life director. His philanthropic involvement with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford (now the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford) was at least four decades long.
“Simon Konover cared deeply about our Jewish community,” says JCC Executive Director David Jacobs. “He was especially committed to children and generously committed his time and resources to ensure that their lives were rich with tradition and identity. He was the visionary who led the Jewish Community Center to purchase Camp Mar-Lin in Windsor in 1978, replacing the old Camp Shalom in New Hartford. The new Camp Shalom was a source of great pride for Simon. I remember his frequent visits in the early years and the naches he got from seeing the children engaged in activities and celebrating Shabbat on Friday afternoons. In recent years, he and I would drive out once each summer, where he would sit with a small group of counselors during lunch, who sat spellbound as Simon told stories of his youth in Europe and coming to Cuba on his journey to America. His legacy is one that will last with great respect and gratitude, from this and future generations.”
In 1983, the Konovers funded the first group home for the Jewish Association for Community Living (JCL) in West Hartford. The non-profit organization assists people with developmental disabilities participate in community life through personal empowerment, community engagement, family relationships, and quality services, enhanced by Jewish tradition.
“Simon Konover played an essential role in assisting Jewish Association for Community Living, then a fledgling and unknown organization,” says Marlene Scharr, founder and first board president of JCL. “He lent JCL his immense credibility as a successful businessman and philanthropist in securing both the financing from Aetna’s community loan program and the confidence of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford to build the group home. Without Simon and the Konover family, it likely would have been several more years before JCL would have been able to open this home.” Konover was honored for his ongoing generosity in 2002, when JCL celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Simon and Doris set up one of the first endowments to fund the University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, founded in 1985.
“Simon was there at the beginning… with supportive and generous friendship that enabled the center to take root and grow,” says friend and founder Arnold Greenberg. “He understood the Center’s mission and its importance to the university and the community. He delighted in encouraging others to match his own generosity, and remained involved with the Center’s activities. His life is truly an inspiring example of the triumph of the human spirit and the promise of America. He will be missed.”
Konover was also a member of the Center’s original Board of Visitors. “To his core, he believes in Jewishness and Jewish education and educating about Jewish history,” his daughter, Jane Konover Coppa, told the Ledger in 2011.
At the University of Hartford, Konover and his company also built the Village Apartments and the Regents Park residence hall, and he and Doris donated Konover Campus Center.
“Simon was one of the most compassionate and humble men I have ever known,” says the university’s President Walter Harrison. “He was an enthusiastic supporter of the university and was very proud of his role in its success. He was especially concerned with the quality of student life on campus, and his support of the Konover Center as a part of that experience was genuine and generous. As a Holocaust survivor, Simon’s philanthropic interests centered on
Jewish life. His experience as an immigrant to America shaped his lifelong commitment to making this country a beacon of hope to all people. He was a loving and devoted husband and family man. I have never met a better storyteller. I will never forget him.”
Konover worked with the late actor Paul Newman, donating construction services to build the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, which opened in 1988 for children with serious illnesses and their families. The Konovers also went on to help finance Jordan River Village, a Hole in the Wall Gang camp in Israel, which opened in 2011.
“From the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp’s earliest days, our founder, Paul Newman, knew that it would take other hands and other hearts to make his dream a reality,” says CEO James Canton. “Simon Konover was a longtime board member whose company built the camp in a miraculous nine months, and his legacy of generosity and compassion is carried on by his family and the Simon Konover Company, who continue to do so much for the seriously ill children and families in our care.”
Paul Newman’s daughter, Clea Newman, senior director of SeriousFun Children’s Network, echoes that sentiment. “Simon was a special part of creating our first camp, and we will be forever grateful to him for his support and generosity. He will be sorely missed by all of us,” she says.
The Konovers were major donors to the University of Connecticut, helping to fund the University Libraries, the Thomas J. Dodd Center, the Kosher Dining Center and UConn Health Center. Simon was an early donor to UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, which is celebrating its 36th anniversary this year. Konover’s connection to the campus harked back to the 1950s when, as part of his budding real-estate business, he laid the floor tiles in the original Student Union building.
Founding director Prof. Arnold Dashefsky remembers the exact moment in 1990 when Konover planted a proverbial stake in the ground. Jewish communal leaders and local politicians had gathered at then-governor William O’Neill’s mansion for a fundraiser on behalf of Judaic Studies, sponsored by the UConn Foundation.
“When it was Simon’s turn to get up and say what he was going to contribute, he said, ‘To me, the most important subject taught at University of Connecticut is Judaic studies and I’m giving $100,000 in support of Judaic Studies at UConn,’” Dashefsky recalls. “That was the beginning of our major endowment at the university, so much so, that today, largely as a result of the Konover Foundation gift of $1.5 million to fund the Konover Chair of Judaic Studies, we have a total of about $2 million of endowment — $1.5 million from the Konover Foundation and a half-million from a dozen other endowments. So, Mr. Konover really started down a path that not only led to the Konover Chair but also to a whole set of other endowments that really raised the profile of Judaic Studies. For that, we’re deeply in debt to him.”
A few years later, UConn and Sen. Chris Dodd decided to build a new research and archive center which would house the papers and other collections of his father, Senator Thomas J. Dodd, as well as office space for the new Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. The State of Connecticut requested that UConn raise private donations in the amount of $1 million to help fund the project.
“So people turned to Simon Konover and he said, ‘I’m going to raise my $100,000 to $250,000,’” Dashefsky says. “But he had a proviso. He said, ‘If it turns out that you don’t need my money for the building, I want it to go to Judaic studies.’” In the end, the state was able to finance the building on its own.
Dashefsky would continue to meet regularly with Konover to discuss creative ways to strengthen the Judaic Studies program, up to last winter, when the two met in Florida.
“I think, when Simon said, ‘Judaic studies is the most important subject at UConn,’ he wanted Jewish culture and civilization, which were so shattered in Europe by the Nazi onslaught, to thrive as a living legacy to what was destroyed during the Holocaust,” says Dashefsky. “He never said that to me but I think that was sort of a subliminal message that he was giving.’”
Prof. Jeffrey Shoulson, the current Konover Chair and director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn, points out that Konover’s generosity at UConn was not only about Jewish life and culture, but also ventured into the realm of interfaith relations.
“What’s most remarkable to me about Simon’s legacy and vision is that, when he established this endowment, it was very important to him that it be in support of scholarship and it be filled by someone whose work is specifically on the important question of the relationship between Jews and the world in which they live, whether it’s Christians or Muslims – the history of the problematic and often violent relations, but also focusing on those moments where relations were more positive,” says Shoulson. “As a refugee from Europe, Simon experienced first-hand the devastating effects that antisemitism can have. Though he had relatively little formal education, he understood that the most effective way to combat prejudice was through education, through the study of past events like the Holocaust and from learning how to understand each other better.”
The Konovers were founders of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1993, and were major donors to the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Konover’s numerous awards and recognitions include the Prime Minister’s New Life Award from the National Committee for Israel Bonds, the Distinguished Service Award to the Cause of Good Relations from the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the Community Builder Award from the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT). A Life Regent of the University of Hartford since 1996, Konover received an honorary Doctor of Commercial Science in 2011, as well as honorary doctoral degrees from UConn and Gratz College. He was named a life director of both the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford. In 2008, Simon and Doris were honored by the Federation and its agencies, when both the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford offices and gallery, and the Mandell JCC’s arts wing were dedicated in their names.
“The Greater Hartford Jewish community joins with all those who were touched by the generosity, warmth and compassion that was Simon Konover,” says Howard Sovronsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. “Simon Konover was a giant in our community and devoted his life to supporting and strengthening our local and global Jewish communities. He helped build our community, not only with bricks and mortar, but through his ongoing generous support of all our communal and educational institutions. His life is a testament to resilience, persistence, and a deep commitment to Jewish values. Despite experiencing the worst that humanity had to offer, he was able to overcome those earlier traumas and extract from those experiences a deep desire to find the good in people.
“While hugely successful in business, his real passion was his family and the world family he held so dear. Simon’s life is a representation of a period of history that is so important for us to remember. Other people who have gone through the trauma that he went through would not likely have come out of it with such an optimistic view of the world and a commitment to repair the world, but he did. He is an extraordinary example of resilience and fortitude. In addition to the successes he had in business, he never, ever forgot his commitment to not only the Jewish community but the larger world community. His legacy will live on as an example to all of how love, devotion and philanthropy can truly change the world.”
Hartford philanthropist and businessman Henry Zachs recalls a meeting with Doris and Simon in Florida that epitomizes the couple’s generosity.
“I asked Simon to give to the community capital campaign and he said, ‘I’d love to give to the campaign,’ and he and Doris did so graciously,” he says. “Whenever I approached him, whether it be for the Trachten Kosher Kitchen at UConn or UConn Hillel or for the University of Hartford Hillel – and he established a $100,000 endowment for each Hillel – or for the Crown Market or Tumble Brook Country Club… Whenever I asked him to invest in our community, Simon never said no. And that is the same tradition that is followed today in my relationship with his daughter Jane Coppa on behalf of her family. She never says no.”
But Konover saw himself through a different lens. “My feeling today is that, no matter how much I give, I feel like I’m not doing enough,” Konover told the Ledger in 2011. “It’s a feeling I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
A memorial service in honor of Simon Konover will be held on Sunday, Nov. 15, 1 p.m. at Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. For more information: (860) 233-9696.