The life Simon Konover was born into was remarkably different from the one he ultimately lived. Konover was born in 1922 in a Polish shtetl called Makow Mazoweicki. His father delivered flour with a horse-drawn wagon; the family was virtually penniless. As the Holocaust progressed, shtetls became an easy target for the encroaching Nazi army. The humble life Konover had known was destroyed when he was a teenager.
When the Nazis arrived, he was taken to a labor camp harvesting food for the army. One night, he and seven others attempted to escape. Only three survived—Simon was one of them. Upon returning home, his parents knew it was not safe to stay and he fled to Russia. But the war had made its way east, and soon Konover was serving in the Soviet army. There, he served in a cargo convey that worked on the front lines—including the horrific Battle of Stalingrad.
Few people will ever say being sent to a Siberian gulag is a blessing, but while Konover was serving a sentence there for disobeying orders, Simon’s unit was obliterated by the Luftwaffe. When the war ended, Konover and his younger brother—the only other family member of 10 who survived the German massacre—reunited in Stalingrad.
However, the Konovers had one half-brother, David Konover, who had immigrated to Hartford during the Great Depression. While in Paris, the brothers were able to make contact with David and made their way to Cuba where they waited 11 months before joining him in 1949. Simon arrived with dreams of opening up a gas station.
David owned a flooring company where Simon ended up working. Among all of the things he would later do for the University of Connecticut, Simon helped lay the floor for the old Student Union. Simon was employed by David for eight years, during which time he worked his way up to being a supervisor.
In 1959, he started the Simon Konover Company, which became an incredibly successful real estate development venture based in West Hartford, CT. Along with a sister company based in Florida, the company has developed and managed thousands of properties. Konover developed a love for real estate while flooring, and after successfully building a small hotel, he knew he had tapped into something. He constructed a shopping center in Torrington, CT, in 1960, anchored by an Ames chain discount store. His company was very much involved in the rise of suburban strip malls.
The company evolved over the years, working in residential, commercial, retail, and even hotel development and management along the East Coast and in the Midwest. The amount accomplished by Konover’s company is astounding: 15 million ft2 of retail space, 2 million ft2 of office space, 20,000 apartment units, and 4,000 hotel rooms.
That success, coupled with memories of his childhood poverty, created a philanthropic force. Many of the Jewish institutions in the Hartford area have Konover’s mark on them. Whether it was by contributing financially to institutions such as the Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford, the Jewish Association for Community Living, or Camp Shalom; or by serving as an annual campaign chairman and establishing the Simon and Doris Konover Family Foundation, Simon Konover was instrumental in ensuring the perpetuation of Jewish life and history.
Konover became especially motivated as people began to claim that the Holocaust didn’t exist. Knowing how unimaginably different his life may have been if it had not, he helped establish Judaic Studies programs at both the University of Hartford and the University of Connecticut.
Konover made many contributions in his lifetime. He is remembered for donating the Konover Campus Center at the University of Hartford while his company was building student housing. He was known for being a donor for the University Libraries, the Dodd Center, the Kosher Dining Center, and the UConn Health Center at the University of Connecticut. Konover was also a founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. In 1988, he donated construction services for the building of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, CT.
Those who knew Konover before his passing in 2015 knew he lived steadfastly to his mantra that the more money he made, the more he would have to give away.
“He was a man of integrity whose handshake was as good as a signed contract,” notes John Shemo, Economic Development Director at the MetroHartford Alliance.
Through his business transactions, generosity, and compassion, Simon Konover became a pillar in the community.
Sources: Connecticut Jewish Ledger, Simon Konover 1922-2015, 2015; Hartford Courant, “Simon Konover, Real Estate Magnate and Philanthropist, Dies at 93,” 2015; Konover South (A Simon Konover Company); The Simon Konover Company; The Simon Konover Company News, 2009.