This Day in Jewish History

1918: A Moroccan Who Brought the VW Beetle to America After WWII Is Born

Victor Elmaleh made billions in real estate but seemed proudest of his watercolors and competitive squash, which continued into his 90s.

A 1950s publicity photograph from Volkswagen's historical archives shows a VW Beetle in rural Germany. Victor Elmaleh, a Moroccan-born Jew, would bring the Beetle to the States shortly after WWII ended.
Reuters

November 27, 1918, is the birthdate of Victor Elmaleh, whose life – as child immigrant, sportsman and musician, wildly successful entrepreneur and builder, philanthropist – was as rich and productive as it was long.

Victor Elmaleh was born in Mogador (today Essaouria), in what was then French Morocco. He was the first of six sons born to Raphael H. Elmaleh, a successful merchant, and Sarah Levy, the daughter of a Russian-born rabbi, Joseph Tobias Levy.

Levy had come to Morocco by way of Palestine in search of etrogim (citrons) for the Sukkot holiday. 

Sarah and Raphael named their son in honor of the Allied victory that had brought World War I to an end two weeks earlier, on November 11. When he was six, the family traveled to Brooklyn, New York, where Sarah’s parents had moved in the meantime, and where she wanted to give birth to another child, and did.

A few months after the arrival of Victor’s brother Leonard, their parents announced their plan to return to Morocco, where Raphael’s business was based. When young Victor, who was about to start first grade, said he wanted to remain in Brooklyn, his parents agreed, leaving him with his grandparents.

Growing up in New York

Growing up in Bensonhurst and later Borough Park, Victor attended P.S. 48 (several years ago, he recalled for an interviewer the names of some of his classmates some eight decades earlier, some of whom became lifelong friends: “I remember a Milton Butvinick, Morton Bialystock, Irving Kafka, Irving Landsberg, Marty Polansky”), followed by Edward B. Shallow Junior High and New Utrecht High School, from which he graduated in 1936.

Elmaleh started college studying piano at Brooklyn College, but after recovering from a serious illness (a ruptured appendix), he decided on a change of venue, and enrolled at the University of Virginia. When he discovered that Virginia didn’t offer instruction in piano, he began to study architecture. He also played on the school’s handball and tennis teams.

By the time he graduated, in 1942, and had had an abbreviated stint in the army, Elmaleh had a partner, Sono Osato, a professional dancer – in 1944, she starred in the original Broadway production of “On the Town” -- of mixed Japanese-Irish descent. Victor’s father threatened to kill himself if his son married a non-Jew, so initially, they held off legalizing their union until 1943. (Raphael Elmaleh did not carry out his threat.)

After their first child was born, Sono decided she wanted to retire from dancing, and Victor felt he needed a more secure source of income than architecture, so he began working with his father’s import-export business.

German cars for America

He began by importing dates from, and tires to, Morocco, but by 1954, Elmaleh and his partners Frank and Arthur Stanton, had become importers of Volkswagens, first to Morocco, then to the U.S., making them among the first to sell the German car in America. Later, they also brought in Audis and Porsches, and also Renaults and Peugeots.

By the time they stopped importing autos, in the 1980s, they had sold some two million cars. Now they moved into residential real estate, with a company called World Wide Group that over the years had developed some $7 billion worth of properties, mostly in New York, often in unlikely neighborhoods. Toward the end of his life, he began investing in development of green architecture.

Elmaleh kept playing handball – until he switched to squash. At age 49, in 1968, he and Victor Niederhoffer won a national doubles championship in that sport, and as late as age 81, he and a partner in a pro-am event beat a pair 60 years his junior. He also contributed large amounts to education and to building facilities, in the hope of making those sports accessible to young people of all backgrounds.

It was only in the 1970s that Elmaleh added painting to his avocations, and he became an accomplished and highly prolific painter of watercolors, which he often exhibited publicly. Additionally, he and his wife directed many of their philanthropic dollars to music and dance education.

Victor Elmaleh died on November 17, 2014, at age 95.