Holocaust survivor developed real estate


Sam Helberg, whose barbering skills helped him survive the Holocaust and later gave him a foothold in the United States that he parlayed into real estate wealth, died Monday in his Sylvania Township home. He was 78.

Mr. Helberg died of bile duct cancer, said his youngest son, Tom Helberg.

A native of Poland, Mr. Helberg was the youngest of 12 children, 11 of whom were imprisoned in concentration camps after the Germans overran Poland during World War II. Only he and a sister survived; another sister had fled the country before the invasion.

Known locally as “Sam, the poor barber,” Mr. Helberg learned his shearing skills as World War II was breaking out. An older brother taught him how to cut hair, a skill that made him useful to the Nazis during his more than five years of detention at a small camp near Auschwitz.

Mr. Helberg was segregated from the general population and given extra food rations, though the latter he secretly shared with other inmates whenever he could, the son said. Caught once sharing his food, Mr. Helberg was punished by being put back in the general labor pool at the camp, but later was returned to his barber's duties after his replacement angered the staff.

Among those with whom he shared food was Tonia Altman, whom he married after the camps were liberated. The couple lived in Germany until 1950, when they and their infant son immigrated to Toledo under the sponsorship of a relief agency.

Mr. Helberg worked first for other local barbers, starting out with knowledge of just two English words - “short” and “long.” But by the mid-1950s he had his own shop on Stickney Avenue in North Toledo, and he later opened shops on Collingwood Boulevard and near the former Swayne Field.

On the side, his son said, Mr. Helberg began buying and renovating duplexes on the edges of the Old West End, and income from these efforts formed his $3,000 capital contribution to Bellevue, which he, George Kuehnl, and Charles Moulopolous founded in 1960.

They named their business after 31/2 acres at Bellevue and Douglas roads that was their first joint purchase. Plans to build dental offices there were scrubbed when the land was condemned to build I-475, but a coin laundry the trio subsequently developed on Collingwood got Bellevue's ball rolling. Bellevue would come to build more than one million square feet of office and commercial buildings, apartment blocks, and shopping centers from Bowling Green to Ann Arbor.

While he had little formal education, the son said, “my father had a head for numbers,” and was a master schmoozer.

Eventually he was able to retire from barbershops, though for many years he donated his hair-cutting talent to retirement center residents to show appreciation for the opportunities he had received in this country. During the Jewish emigration from Russia during the 1970s, Mr. Helberg took as an apprentice a Russian barber who had 18 years' experience but no English language skills.

“He was a very bright guy. He had a lot of street sense,” said Mark Zyndorf, a local commercial real estate executive. Mr. Helberg “got the banks to make the loans” and often made decisions without consulting his partners, but they never made any decisions without his input, Mr. Zyndorf said.

Mr. Helberg attended Congregation B'nai Israel weekly and established the Holocaust Memorial at Beth Shalom Cemetery.

Mr. Helberg is survived by his wife of 57 years, Tonia Helberg; sons, Sandy, Ted, and Tom Helberg; sister, Esther Rudoler; and seven grandchildren.

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow in Congregation B'nai Israel, 2727 Kenwood Blvd. Following services and through Friday afternoon, the family will receive friends at the Sylvania home of Tom and Shelley Helberg. The Robert H. Wick/Wisniewski Funeral Home handled arrangements.

The family suggests tributes to the National Holocaust Memorial, Washington, or the American Cancer Society.