The Atlanta Jewish community lost a very special person and an outstanding philanthropist when Abe Besser died on April 26, 2021. Abe was fervent in his love for Jewish Atlanta and contributed to almost every Jewish organization in town. Abe was extremely proud that he was a consistent donor to Federation’s annual Community Campaign for more than five decades. Known for his support for Holocaust remembrance, Abe was also a benefactor of the Besser Gymnastics Building at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA), numerous programs at Jewish Family & Career Services, and established philanthropic funds at Atlanta Jewish Foundation.
We share Abe’s story because it sits at the intersection of philanthropy, memory, and entrepreneurship. It is a testament to how one individual chose to pay his blessings forward for the benefit of our Atlanta Jewish community. And it illustrates precisely how Atlanta Jewish Foundation can help anyone create a lasting philanthropic legacy.
Born in Krzepice, Poland, Abe was the youngest of seven children. To protect his sisters from being taken by the Nazis, his father sent him to a labor camp. His years of hard labor included walking in the snow with no shoes, and so he rejoiced on the day American planes dropped flyers announcing that the Americans had landed. “When I was in the concentration camp, I promised myself that if I survived, I would build a memorial so that the world would not forget.” Along with his beloved wife Marlene Gelernter Besser, he also planned and executed the outdoor memorial at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta to the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah. He envisioned this as a memorial to his family and to the community as a living tribute for future generations.
What drove this immigrant entrepreneur to give so generously? Abe Besser’s obituary provides clues to his ingenuity and tenacity. Before even arriving in America, Abe founded a cab company in Berlin to serve the American soldiers. At age 24, when he immigrated to the United States, it is said that upon arrival in New Orleans, he literally kissed the ground in thanks. As a new immigrant, Abe was sponsored by the Rosenthal Sheet Metal Company. He paid his debt back to the company over three years and went to night school to learn English. Abe began his career by building houses and apartment complexes throughout greater Atlanta.
Abe Besser’s philanthropic focus on Holocaust remembrance was deeply embedded in his life experiences. In an interview archived at The Breman Jewish Museum, he was asked, “What would you want people to learn about the Holocaust?”
He replied, “What I want them to learn, to see [is] what had happened in a civilized country, what a civilized country did to human beings. Therefore, I want them to see that this education is being brought forward, and taught, and taught, and taught [so] that an atrocity like that would never happen again to human beings. This is the only thing I’d like to see. That it will not occur again, regardless of what religion a person believes. What right does any country have to eradicate a nation because of their religion? The United States is a free country, and everybody believes whatever they want to believe, and that’s the way it ought to be. I’d like to see more and more education, more and more people to understand the Holocaust and the atrocities that happened [so] that it will not occur again. This is my only wish.”