U.S. war hero and entrepreneur rose to helm of the Federation that saved him

Jewish community leader and philanthropist Manfred Steinfeld dies

Manny Steinfeld & Wife image
Manny Steinfeld and Fern, his wife and the love of his life, in 2014.

Manny Steinfeld's story simultaneously personified the American Dream and embodied the Jewish experience of the 20th Century. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he persevered and prospered in America; became a U.S. war hero, a titan of business, and a major philanthropist.

Steinfeld, 95, died June 30.

In 1938, at age 14, Steinfeld arrived in Chicago with $10 stitched in his pants pocket. HIAS Chicago, a JUF/Federation-funded agency, paid for his transportation from Germany to Chicago. Then Jewish Charities of Chicago, the forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Chicago, provided a $25 monthly stipend to assist with Steinfeld's care until he was 18.

Steinfeld always credited the Jewish Federation with saving his life-and 50 years later, he rose up to become that Jewish Federation's chairman of the board.

"Manny was one of the last of the greatest generation; even within that generation, he was great and utterly unique," said Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, JUF Executive Vice Chairman. "He was a true original and there simply will not be another like him, ever. He was the best of the best."

Less than a year after graduating from Hyde Park High School, Steinfeld went into the U.S. Army. He participated in five campaigns with the renowned 82nd Airborne Division, for which he received a host of medals, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He was among the first American G.I.s to liberate concentration camps, helping to free inmates from Woebbelin. Steinfeld also played a distinctive role at the end of World War II, assisting in the translation of the unconditional surrender document when the German 21st Army Group surrendered to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ludwigslust, Germany.

Steinfeld's joy at the end of the war was tempered by personal loss. His father had died when he was 5; after the war, he learned that his mother and sister both lost their lives in the Stutthof concentration camp, while his younger brother was killed by British troops in Palestine.

He was heartbroken but not broken. Steinfeld returned to Chicago and attended Roosevelt University after his military service, graduating in 1948 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. One year later, he Fern (Goldman), with whom he had three children, Michael, Paul, and Jill. He was recalled to active duty at the onset of the Korean War and served for two years as a military intelligence officer at Fort Meade, Md.

After the Korean War, Steinfeld and a business associate purchased the bankrupt Great Northern Chair Company in Chicago for $10,000 and changed the name to Shelby Williams Industries. The company quickly skyrocketed to success, and Steinfeld made his first gift to the JUF Annual Campaign in 1959.

Perhaps because he felt the need to contribute on behalf of those who did not survive, Steinfeld's philanthropy quickly snowballed. He became a member of the Prime Ministers Associates, and delighted in giving to the JUF Annual Campaign for 60 years, in addition to contributing generously to special campaigns.

"Instead of asking 'Why me?' Manny asked, 'What's my mitzvah?  What can I do next?'" Nasatir said. "Since he was the one who survived, he was determined to live in a way that honored the members of his family who did not.

"And partnering with Fern, the love of his life, he did that with a whole heart." 

The couple established the Naftali Steinfeld Scholarship Fund for Summer Experiences in Israel, which has provided free trips to Israel for many young Chicago adults, and a special fund that underwrites speakers for JUF fundraising events. They helped launch JUF's Snowbird program, which was Steinfeld's brainchild. And they endowed a multi-million dollar gift to The Centennial Campaign.  

"Manny always credited JUF/Federation with saving his life, and actually kept the receipts of the $1,200 our agencies invested in him from 1938 to 1942," Nasatir said. "He liked to say that he felt it was proper to pay the community back-but with a little interest.  Then he'd get that twinkle in his eye and calculate how much that interest totaled to date. Manny was a mathematical genius whose mind was as accurate as a computer. 

"At last count, he had paid the Chicago Jewish community back thousands and thousands of times over," Nasatir said.

In addition, Steinfeld invested his time in JUF/Federation, serving on committees and its board, chairing events, serving as JUF Campaign Chair-twice-in 1987 and again in 1997, and as Chairman of the Board from 1998-2000.

He received the Federation's highest honor, the Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award, in 2000.

"JUF was perhaps my dad's fifth child," said his daughter, Jill Cunniff. "First his kids, then Shelby Williams Industries, and then the Jewish United Fund."

In addition, a plethora of cultural, educational, social service,  and medical institutions at the local, national, and international levels benefited from Steinfeld's leadership, business acumen, and generosity.

"My dad believed in the concept of giving back and he measured people not by their wealth but by what they can contribute to society," Cunniff said. "I asked him once, many years ago, what kept him up at night, and he told me: 'Making sure all my employees have food on the table for their families.'"

He was a life trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he endowed the 20th Century Decorative American Arts Gallery and provided support for the Bentwood Furniture Exhibition, featuring furniture from his collection. He made major contributions to the refurbishing of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Symphony Center, and established the Fifth Floor Gallery at Orchestra Hall.

And he established and endowed the Manfred Steinfeld School of Hospitality Management at his alma mater, Roosevelt University, where he was a life member of the board of directors. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1997.

Having attended college with the help of the G.I. Bill, which he credited with jump-starting his success, Steinfeld delighted in creating college scholarship funds, which he did at Brandeis University and Illinois Institute of Technology. At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee-where Shelby Williams was headquartered-he not only established  the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Chair in Judaic Studies, but launched a scholarship fund that over the last four decades has provided more than 500 college scholarships.

"I get letters of gratitude monthly from his grant recipients-kids from small towns of Tennessee who would never have had the opportunity to complete their studies without help from his scholarships," Cunniff said.

In Israel, he established a Professorial Chair at the Weizmann Institute of Science and, in memory of his grandson, established the Danny Cunniff Leukemia Research Laboratory at Hadassah Hospital and the Danny Cunniff Woodlands at the Jewish National Fund Forest. He also made major gifts to cancer research and established playgrounds in Danny's memory.

Most recently, he provided a major gift for the establishment of the Fern F. Steinfeld Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement Center at Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Florida.

"Manny told me many times, 'Being charitable never depleted anyone's assets,'" Nasatir said. "'Ask any philanthropist and he'll tell you, the more you give away, the more that seems to come back to you.  The only money we're going to take with us is what we've given away, for that is what we'll be remembered by.'"

Among Steinfeld's almost countless honors: the Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans; American Jewish Committee Humanitarian Award of the Year; Holocaust Foundation of Illinois Humanitarian Award;  Volunteer of the Year Award from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, now called "the Manny," from Hospitality Design Magazine ; the ADL Guardian of Freedom Award; American Friends of Hebrew University Mount Scopus Award; and Hadassah Hospital Guardian of Tomorrow Award.

In 2014, the Steinfelds received the National Leadership Award from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, of which they were founders.

Steinfeld's remarkable life and contributions have been documented in print, television, and film, most recently in Bruce Henderson's Fathers and Soldiers , about Jews who escaped the Nazis and fought with the U.S. Army against Hitler.

He is survived by his wife, Fern (nee Goldman); children Michael (Rosibel) and Paul (Sara) Steinfeld and Jill Cunniff (Timothy); along with grandchildren Adam, Joshua, Tara, Ryan, Bradley, and Jason Steinfeld, and Courtney, Chase, Caroline, Kevin, and the late Daniel Cunniff.

"He used to smile and say to me, 'I think I did okay for a refugee,'" Cunniff said. "'Dad,' I'd say, 'You did better than okay.'"

Memorial contributions may be made to JUF or the Danny Cunniff Leukemia Research Laboratory at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.


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