The story behind Helfeld's Delicatessen & Catering may melt your heart even before their delicacies melt in your mouth. There is much more to this new Wicker Park family-owned Jewish deli than just a delectable pastrami sandwich--although that's a big part of it, along with corned beef, a hand-cut lox, fresh bagels, challah, mouthwatering matzoh ball soup, homemade knishes, rugelach, banana bread, and more.
But the origin story and inspiration for the deli dates back to a Holocaust survivor named Jakub Grutz.
Helfeld's co-owner Mark Grutz learned to navigate the deli business from his late father, Jakub, who eventually settled in Chicago. Born in Poland, Jakub changed his last name to "Helfeld" during the Nazi occupation in an attempt to sound less Jewish. At the age of 13, he witnessed the murder of his parents at the hands of the Nazis, and was deported to Janowska concentration camp, where he was imprisoned for several years.
"There was a Polish man named Tolek who helped my grandfather escape," said Emily Helfeld, Mark's daughter and Jakub's granddaughter. "Eventually, my grandfather Jakub joined the Soviet Army and actually fired Katyusha rockets at the Nazis."
In the late 1960s, after facing more antisemitism, Jakub and his wife immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Chicago. Jakub spent the rest of his life working in the deli business, ultimately becoming a partial owner of Mort's Deli on the North Side, and also owning several delis in Florida.
Like his father, Mark has worked in the restaurant business for many years. Then, earlier this year, owners Mark and Sally Grutz, and their daughter, Emily, finally opened a deli of their own. "[I wanted] my back pain to be my own back pain instead of someone else's," he said.
Helfeld's was supposed to open its doors last year, but unforeseen expenses and red tape, including a business license application holdup and renovations, delayed the opening by several months.
Now up and running, Mark said he feels warmly welcomed by their neighbors and clientele. "I've been working in the deli business for a long time, and I've never seen such nice people in my life," he said.
They have Jakub to thank for inspiring them to start the deli. "This is a great way to honor my grandpa's memory," Emily said.
Rochelle Newman Rubinoff is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.