Dan Wolf, the third-generation owner of 72-year-old Jewish deli stalwart the Bagel, died on Friday, July 1, according to the restaurant’s general manager Richard Brantner. He was 77.
Wolf’s career in hospitality began in early 1950s, shortly after after his grandparents and parents founded the Bagel. At seven years old, he was the only member of the household who spoke fluent English and thus was charged with typing up daily menus of Eastern European Jewish and Old World cuisine, Mitchell Kaufman, Wolf’s spouse of 60 years, told Block Club Chicago.
Born in 1945 inside the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Wolf was a rare child survivor of the Czechoslovakian ghetto-labor camp where between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis and their collaborators executed approximately 90 percent of the 15,000 children imprisoned there. “The story goes that his mother [Ruth Wolf] was told to stand in a line with [Wolf] — one line was for execution, one was to go on,” says Brantner. “They put her in the execution line, but as it kept moving, she snuck into the other line.”
When Ruth Wolf reached the front of the queue, the guard noticed the switch. “I want to live with my child,” she told him. The guard, for reasons unknown, ultimately let them go. “Otherwise, this would not all be here,” says Brantner, who has spent more than three decades working at the Bagel. “It’s incredible that he survived.”
At age four, Wolf, along his parents Ruth and Edward Wolf and grandparents Chaim and Elsa Golenzer, immigrated to the United States. In 1950, the Golenzers and Wolfs opened the Bagel on Kedzie and Lawrence in Albany Park, founding what would become one of the best-known Jewish delis in the city.
Despite his early immersion in the restaurant business, Wolf pursued other fields as a young man and earned a degree in psychology before finally embracing his first calling — hospitality. He took over the family business in 1969 and helmed the Bagel through three locations in the Chicago area, assisted by his late uncle Michael Golenzer. In 1992, the Bagel relocated to its current home at 3107 N. Broadway in Lakeview.
To all who knew him, Wolf’s return to the restaurant business seemed like beshert — the Yiddish word for “destiny” — in large part due to his endlessly warm and welcoming demeanor. He assembled a fiercely loyal staff (“We have employees who have been here even longer than I have,” says Brantner) and offered them additional financial support when they were struggling. He also instated a policy of offering food to hungry and houseless people who lingered near the restaurant or came inside and directed his workers to follow suit.
“He was just a mensch, a gentleman,” says Bratner. “He always had a warm smile, his door was always open for people to talk to him. He loved his work and didn’t even consider it work because he loved what he did.”
Wolf’s influence extended beyond the restaurant’s walls. He was an instrumental figure in the growth and success of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, establishing programs and working in several chamber roles for over 35 years, executive director Maureen Martino told Block Club. Wolf and Kaufman also supported Jewish-led nonprofits in the area, including Jewish Child & Family Services Chicago.
Despite the immense economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and Wolf’s death, the deli will keep serving its community with golden bowls chicken soup studded with enormous, fluffy matzo balls, mammoth corned beef sandwiches, and other Ashkenazi Jewish classics. “From my understanding from [Kaufman], the Bagel will continue in honor of Danny’s name because that’s what he would want,” says Brantner. “He is truly everywhere in this restaurant and in the community.”
In addition to his spouse, Wolf is survived by his aunt Haya Golenzer. A memorial service was held on Tuesday, July 5, at Shalom Memorial Funeral Home in Arlington Heights.