Jewish American Heritage Month
May 25, 2023
Having observed and now looking back on Jewish American Heritage month, we pay tribute to the approximately 7.6 million Jewish Americans and their collective contributions to the rich fabric of our nation. While there are more stories than we could ever possibly share, we offer the story of one Holocaust survivor, Leo Ullman, as a testimony to the strength and perseverance of the people who make up and support this extraordinary community.
We extend our gratitude and appreciation to Dana Arschin, two-time Emmy-Winning journalist and current Storyteller for the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County (HMTC) for her work to protect these stories and for allowing us to share her work.
Leo Ullman's story, written by Dana Arschin
Holocaust survivor Leo Ullman is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He's a Harvard graduate, a wildly successful entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and an accomplished athlete who has completed 145 triathlons. That's barely scratching the surface of this man's extraordinary life.
“My life was not defined by the Holocaust," says Ullman.
The 83-year-old, who I interviewed at his beautiful home on the water in Sands Point, Long Island, is among the youngest Holocaust survivors. He wasn't even a year old when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May of 1940.
"At first my parents and I had the chance to escape. We went to a fishing port in Holland. The scene at the fishing port was utter chaos. There were not big boats taking people to England, rather it was just a lot of people hoping to get onto a fishing boat or two."
Leo and his parents, named Frank and Emily Ullman, could not get onto one of those boats. Life in the Netherlands soon became increasingly more difficult for the Jews. It started with decrees. First, for all of the country's approximately 140,000 Jews to relocate to the country's capital city of Amsterdam.
“Every Jew had to have a J on his identity card. And every male Jew had to include the name Simon as a middle name and every female Jew had to include the word Sarah as her middle name."
And then it got even worse, as transports to forced labor and death camps began.
“People who were elderly, invalid, children, were being pushed into cattle cars."
Leo's parents felt they had no choice but to go into hiding in March of 1943, when Leo was 3 years old. With help from Emily's friends in the resistance, they secured a hiding place for Leo in the apartment of a Christian family. It was an unimaginable decision to separate from their little boy, not knowing if they would ever see him again. Frank and Emily hid in an attic of a storefront on a main street right in the heart of the city. The same city where Anne Frank was in-hiding with her family.
"Every step outside, every motorized vehicle, every noise, could have meant the end of their lives and to live under that kind of unbelievable pressure and terror is something you can’t replicate in a play about Anne Frank, or anything else.”
Leo and both his parents miraculously survived the war. A Dutch policeman and his wife risked their lives to hide Leo and treated him as if he was their own son. Leo is still in touch with the descendants of his war parents.
"I always wondered why in the world my war mother and father would take this ultimate risk. It may well be that they didn’t think the war would last as long as it would, but to take in a Jewish child, under circumstances where the Nazis were paying huge bounties for anybody that betrayed a Jew, and they would almost certainly kill anybody who was hiding a Jew. To take that risk is something I couldn’t ever understand. And I always asked my war mother why in the world would you do that, and she said 'because it was the right thing to do.'"
Ordinary people, doing extraordinary deeds in the face of absolute death. For Leo, sharing his survival story is critical, especially now, as we see a spike in antisemitism across the globe.
According to Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, approximately 105,000 Dutch Jews were murdered during the war.
"If we don’t tell that story, who is there to tell it? And I also realize I am among the youngest survivors and soon there won’t be anyone to tell the story and therefore I felt it was very important for me to do that," said Leo.
Here in the United States, Leo started a whole new chapter of his story. After the war, his parents had another baby, Leo's younger brother, Henry. In 1947 the family made its way to New York. Leo remembers being on that ship like it was yesterday.
"We were on the Westerdam, a converted liberty ship and we came to New York in the fog and drizzle and suddenly the Statue of Liberty appeared and the tears were streaming down my mother's face and she said...I have trouble saying it, 'we beat Hitler.'”
And beat Hitler, they did. The Ullman family moved to Port Washington, Long Island where Leo was too advanced academically for the public school system. He finished high school at the renowned Andover prep school in Massachusetts, then graduated in three and a half years from Harvard, where he was also the goalie for the Harvard lacrosse team. He even took a term off from Harvard before graduating to join the Marine Corp. He was in the reserves for five and a half years, while also earning his JD and his MBA from Columbia.
"This is where I spend a huge part of my life," said Leo as I stepped into his Port Washington office, a quick drive from his home.
He owns a real estate management company called Vastgood Properties, which he started after leaving his former company, which went public. This is Leo's advice to up and coming entrepreneurs and those interested in real estate:
"Don't be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to put it all on the line. Go out if you can and get a two family home and rent it, and then buy a four family home. And then buy a small apartment building and maybe you get a little office building here and there and it works if you are careful. There is no magic to real estate. It’s all common sense, it is not more than that."
Leo's company owns 19 shopping centers mostly in Pennsylvania, and most of them anchored by Giant supermarkets. He takes great pride in his properties and says he's always honest and goes out of his way to show his tenants respect and to learn their stories.
Leo's work definitely funds some of his incredibly interesting hobbies. He recently donated to Stockton University his entire private collection of Nolan Ryan cards and memorabilia. Nolan Ryan is one of the ultimate power pitchers in major league baseball who pitched for 27 years and holds the records for no-hitters and most strikeouts. Leo's collection had about 15,000 items and took him 29 years to accumulate. It's valued at approximately $1,2M. Leo also wrote a book about this collection, which will be published soon.
“My goal at this point is simply to have the book be beautiful, I want it to be evidence of all the work I put into it, I don’t have to make a nickel on it."
Leo's writing portfolio doesn't stop there. He penned a book about his Holocaust survival story, called 796 days.
Leo's wife of 63 years, Kay, who is also his high school sweetheart, shares how important she believes it is for Leo to tell his tale to anyone who will listen, especially since Leo is an increasingly rare first-hand witness.
“I think that’s most important, most important that he is a primary source," said Kay.
My story on Leo could be never-ending. This man is a force to be reckoned with. He has biked across the country, completed 145 triathlons and three Ironman races. Together he and Kay have four children and nine grandchildren.
"It was always my mother's credo that we beat Hitler. And how did we beat them? We created what we think is a wonderful family.”
A wonderful family and a powerful legacy, Leo's greatest revenge against the Nazis.
HMTC Storyteller – Dana Arschin
Leo Ullman Video Segment