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A Sad Goodbye to Toronto's King of Smoked Meat

03/21/2013 12:02 EDT | Updated 05/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Wolfie Zimmerman, the little known king of the Toronto smoked meat sandwich passed away a couple of weeks ago.

I will miss him. Very few deli owners had Wolfie's touch. Located in a utilitarian strip mall in Toronto's Jewish enclave just west of Bathurst on Sheppard Avenue, Wolfie's was everything a Jewish Deli should be. Small, with tiny tables crammed into every corner, a loud boisterous crowd mostly my co-religionists but you certainly didn't have to be Jewish to love Wolfie's smoked meat and raucous debate.

View image wolfie doing what he did best-cutting smoked meat

Tory, Liberal or NDP, all stripe of politics, gossip and kvetching came free with smoked meat piled six inches high on Silverstein rye with your choice of regular or hot mustard. A slice of dill, full or half sour, with a scoop of potato salad rounded out a paper plate. It was a meal fit for the common person to make you feel like a million bucks.

And Wolfie knew all his fressers (clientele/eaters for lack of a better translation) by name. "Ah Bernie's here" he would call out as I walked through the door "smoked meat, hot mustard, cole slaw and a Cott's Black Cherry". And truth be told his sandwich was a work of art. Try as I might there was simply no way you could get your whole mouth around one of Wolfie's sandwiches.

Wolfie's was always a family affair. His daughter Gila and her husband David Gelberman worked the counter and cash and do so to this very day. And lately their children have taken their rightful place behind the counter. But Wolfie was the undisputed king of his deli.

Wolfie's was a place for carnivores. The one time I mistakenly brought a friend to the deli who was a vegetarian I recall Wolfie looking at him uncomprehendingly, "what you don't eat meat"? Wolfie asked incredulously. No matter, in seconds my guest had a plate filled with potato salad, cole slaw rye bread and pickles. "No one goes away from here hungry", I recall Wolfie saying," not even a vegetable fresser".

Born 90 years ago in the small Polish village of Tarnobrzeg to a family of eight brothers and sisters, Wolfie's story is both familiar and unique. Like many Jews of Eastern Europe Wolfie's family were, as the Shalom Aleichem tale is fond of noting, "not poor but they weren't rich either". Life was tough but imbued with Jewish culture and tradition.

The outbreak of World War 2 changed everything for Polish Jewry and Wolfie's family was no exception. By the time the Nazi killing machine had been halted Wolfie had survived 13 labour camps. When he was finally liberated from Bergen Belsen in 1945 he found his family decimated. His mother and five of his siblings were murdered by the Nazis. Miraculously, his father survived and Wolfie always credited his father for keeping him alive as he entered his first camp at the age of 17.

Wolfie, like so many other survivors refused to let grief and tragedy mark his future. In 1946, Wolfie married Rose in a displaced persons camp where his first child was born and three years later they journeyed to Israel to begin a new life. In 1959 he emigrated from Israel to Canada where he painted homes for a few years in order to provide for his family.

Tired of schlepping paint and ladders and after making enough money he purchased a small bar on Queen Street that he operated until 1975 when he joined with his son-in-law David to open Wolfie's.

And there he stayed for more than thirty five years happily reigning over his small smoked meat kingdom that saw a whole range of humanity pass through its doors; police officers, firefighters, ambulance drivers, politicians, community leaders and just plain folk. Wolfie was one of a kind. And while he has now passed on to the great deli in the sky, he has left us a real gift, a smoked meat sandwich the way it is supposed to be served, piled high on double rye with a smack of yellow mustard and a dollop of humour and opinionated debate. May his memory be for a blessing.