By Susan D. Brandenburg
March 7 was designated Henri Landwirth Day by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry this year. The mayor honored the Holocaust survivor and philanthropist on his 90th birthday with a proclamation outlining some of Landwirth’s many accomplishments.
Born in Belgium in 1927, Landwirth was 13 when his father, Max, was murdered by Nazi soldiers. Henri, his mother and twin sister, Margot, spent the next five years in concentration camps. He and Margot survived. Their mother, Fanny, did not.
The Fanny Landwirth Foundation, founded in memory of their mother, has contributed $7 million to those in need. Today, Greg Landwirth, Henri’s son, is president of the Fanny Landwirth Foundation.
“My brother, Gary, and I serve as trustees of the foundation,” said Henri’s daughter, Lisa Ullmann of Ponte Vedra Beach. “Our Dad’s hope in creating the Fanny Landwirth Foundation was to give to those less fortunate and encourage all of us to work together as a family for the sake of others. I’m so grateful he had the foresight to give us this charitable vision. It will continue to live for generations to come.”
Landwirth’s four grandchildren, Rebecca, Max, Sarah and Emily, all serve on the second generation board for the Fanny Landwirth Foundation.
When he arrived in the United States in 1950, Landwirth had a sixth grade education, $20 in his pocket and spoke no English. Within three months, he received a draft notice from the U.S. Army. Not only was he forced to learn English and learn how to drive, but he was able to use the G.I. Bill to take hotel management courses and eventually to become a successful hotelier. He was managing the Starlight Hotel in Cocoa Beach when the nation’s space program began and he became close friends with the Mercury Seven astronauts, including the late John Glenn, and media moguls like Walter Cronkite. Later, as the owner of several Holiday Inns in Orlando, Landwirth often provided rooms for terminally ill children whose last wish was to visit Disney World. Landwirth decided, after a little girl’s hotel reservations were cancelled due to her death, that he would turn his wealth into philanthropy. He founded Give Kids the World Village, where thousands of children and their families have stayed for a week free of charge for the past 30 years.
Landwirth and his twin sister, Margot, celebrated their 90th birthday together in March, both of them marveling at the miracle of living so many years on what Landwirth terms “borrowed time.”
Over the years, in appreciation for being spared in the Nazi death camps and finding incredible good fortune in the United States, Landwirth has paid his blessings forward with generosity and caring compassion. Two books have been written about him, documentaries have been made about him, he has been an honored guest at the White House, and has received numerous awards including Humanitarian of the Year by Parents Magazine and being deemed one of the 12 Most Caring People in America.
There was a day in 2000, soon after Landwirth moved to Jacksonville that he visited the I. M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless.
“I was homeless at 18 after being in the camps for five years,” he said. “I wanted to know how I could help the homeless here.”
Landwirth sat on the steps of the I. M. Sulzbacher Center with a group of men and asked them what they needed.
“They wouldn’t talk to me,” he said. “I just looked like a rich old man wearing a fancy sweater, until I rolled up my sleeve and showed them my concentration camp tattoo – B4343. I told them, ‘I’ve been homeless, too. What do you need?’”
One man stood up and pulled his pants down over one bare hip.
“We don’t have any underwear,” he said. “Nobody hands down underwear or socks.”
Landwirth left the center and went to every clothing retailer in town, buying up underwear and socks to take back to the center. That was the day Dignity U Wear came into being.
Today, having partnered with retailers and nonprofits across the country to provide millions of items of brand new clothing to children, families in crisis, the homeless, veterans and more, Dignity U Wear is turning to the local community for help.
“Our goal is to never turn away someone in need,” said Dignity U Wear President Nicole Brose. “When you become a member of Dignity U Wear by donating monthly, you become a Life Changer for people in need. We are a lean 501C-3 nonprofit organization with a small staff assisted by many volunteers to serve a massive need locally as well as nationwide.”
Brand new clothing can promote a brand new outlook for a child starting school, a person hunting a job or a veteran transitioning into civilian life. Partnering with retailers and nonprofit organizations such as The Boys and Girls Clubs, The Salvation Army, The Youth Crisis Center, Wounded Warriors and Operation New Uniform, Dignity U Wear is currently in the midst of its annual Undie Campaign “Drop Your Drawers,” with the goal of collecting crucial funds as well as 300,000 units of underwear by April 30, 2017.
Email info@DignityUWear.org if you are interested in participating in the Undie Campaign or visit DignityUWear.org under events for team registration and sponsorships packets. Business sponsorships are also available, and can be customized. Follow Dignity U Wear for updates at facebook.com/DignityUWear.
Photo courtesy Lisa Ullmann