Obituary: Sandy Hofstedter, Holocaust survivor, helped build Toronto

Sandor “Sandy” Hofstedter, a Holocaust survivor who came to Canada and played a major role in Toronto’s post-war expansion with H&R Developments, died in Toronto on Dec. 4 at the age of 97.

He was also remembered as a generous but unassuming philanthropist when it came to Jewish causes and charities, both here and in Israel.

H&R Developments became one of the largest integrated real estate developers in Canada, encompassing thousands of residential, industrial and commercial projects in the Greater Toronto Area. Hofstedter’s sons, grandchildren and other loved ones would go on to run or work in different divisions of the company.

H&R had nine companies in its corporate family and generated $40 million (USD) in annual sales, according to an undated company profile by Dun & Bradstreet.

“H&R has built thousands of homes across Ontario, so there’s a pretty good chance that you or someone you know has lived happily in an H&R-built home,” stated another corporate profile, in 2013.

Hofstedter was a major donor to dozens of Jewish educational, health care, and religious causes, most notably as an early developer of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Thornhill and as a founder of Clanton Park Synagogue in Downsview.

He was born on Aug. 18, 1924 in the Hungarian town of Mezokovesd. His father, Zev, was a wine merchant and community leader. Following Germany’s invasion of Hungary in March 1944, the clan was shipped to the Mauthausen concentration camp in modern-day Austria, where Hofstedter made boots for Nazi soldiers.

Most of the immediate family survived and found itself at war’s end in a displaced persons camp in Torino, Italy. At the time, Jewish business and labour leaders from Canada had been dispatched to find refugees in the DP camps and bring them over under programs for needed tailors, garment workers and furriers. In the fall of 1948, Hofstedter, his new wife Aranka (Kicsi), his brother Imre, and two uncles, Bill and Danny Rubinstein (the “R” in H&R), arrived in Halifax, ostensibly as furriers.

Representatives of the largely Jewish Canadian Fur Workers’ Union presented the fresh arrivals with a choice of three cities that had a fur industry. Some chose Montreal but many saw it as too daunting because of the need to learn two languages when the newcomers didn’t even know one. Winnipeg was regarded as too cold and remote. As Hofstedter family lore had it, Toronto sounded like Torino, so the destination was settled.

They learned enough from earlier arrivals to work in the fur business, even knowing to tell more rotund customers: “Of course it fits. It’s not supposed to close.”

But after being robbed at gunpoint of $25,000 worth of furs while on the road selling to Hungarian fruit farmers in the Niagara region, Hofstedter had had enough of the business, and sold eggs off the back of a bicycle for a short time.

“When the idea of leaving the fur business to go into real estate came up—and that’s what everybody was talking about—I think he was the first one to really say, ‘this is what we should be doing.’ The uncles followed and joined in,” recalled Hofstedter’s son George in Ron Chapman’s recent documentary Shelter, about Jewish immigrants to Toronto who built affordable, quality housing.

Hofstedter was the youngest of the three and “spoke the least bad English,” so he became the frontman for the business, Robert Eli Rubinstein, Bill’s Rubinstein’s son, told Chapman for the same film.

H&R Developments was founded in the early 1950s and built its first homes in Toronto’s Bathurst-York Downs area, where the Jewish corridor was developing. Just before the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Hofstedter’s father, Zev, emigrated to join the family in the new business.

The elder Hofstedter was “a tough, strong businessman,” George went on. He warned his son and the others: “You’re not going to make money. Every time Mrs. Schwartz doesn’t like the colour of the wall, you repaint it for her. You’re not going to make money doing this. You know, you’re being too nice to the homeowner.”

The trio barely broke even. Hofstedter “really learned by the seat of his pants,” his son George recounted. Undaunted, the operation built homes and rental units in Scarborough and Etobicoke.

In H&R’s early days, Hofstedter formed relationships with other Jewish developers, like Joe Berman, Eph Diamond and the Reichmann family.

In 1960, Hofstedter and Simon Mintz founded Baif Developments, which is credited with the initial site developments of several Toronto landmarks, including the Yonge-Eglinton Centre, and completed master-planned residential communities in Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Newmarket, Oakville, Toronto, Whitby, Mississauga, Markham, and Brampton.

Each of the Hofstedter sons would go on to run a division of the company: David oversaw the industrial arm, the commercial sector was run by Thomas, and George ran home building. Residential development was done by Hofstedter’s son-in-law, Mark Mandelbaum, who later struck out with partner Barry Fenton to form Lanterra Developments, specializing in high-rise projects in downtown Toronto.

In 1996, the family rolled their commercial assets into a publicly-traded real estate investment trust called H&R REIT, whose portfolio includes retail, office, and industrial properties, with total assets of $13 billion.

Hofstedter’s philosophy was straightforward, said his grandson, Zev Mandelbaum: Live a life of meaning.

“My grandfather never did anything just to do it. He did everything with meaning and purpose. Everything,” said Mandelbaum, president and CEO of Altree Developments.

His grandfather’s advice was not to chase pleasure, which is fleeting. The message was, “do things with purpose and meaning. He was always about trying to help people, not just by giving a cheque, but actually giving advice. Twice a week, he would host open houses and write cheques for anyone who needed it in the community. People would line up.”

Hofstedter “really built Toronto,” his grandson said.

Yiddishkeit is what it is in this city because of him,” eulogized another grandson at Hofstedter’s funeral. “Torah flourishes in the city, and has for many decades, because of him.”

Hofstedter was buried in Israel. He was predeceased by his wife, Aranka. He is survived by his second wife, Irene; sons George, Thomas and David (founder of Dirshu International, whose goal is to strengthen and encourage Torah study); a daughter Lindy Mandelbaum; 28 grandchildren; and more than 100 great-grandchildren.