An Angel Among Us
A longtime Tahoe resident and concentration camp survivor is selflessly giving away her fortune to benefit the community
The Angel of Tahoe is seated on her sofa with the mid-morning light streaming through a window that looks out to the greening fairways of Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. Beyond them, the snow-clad slopes of Heavenly rise to the sky. Slowly, she begins to tell her story.
“I was raised on a farm in the Ukraine. That is the beginning,” says Lisa Maloff, with the precise enunciation of a Ukrainian accent still present after 60 years in South Lake Tahoe.
As Maloff continues to speak, the details unspool into a remarkable story of strength, perseverance, courage and selfless giving. Many local residents know how the story ends—how Maloff came to be known as “The Angel of Tahoe.” They’ve heard of the hospital wing, college center, scholarships, sports field, youth center and other landmark community efforts she has funded over the past seven years. They know that she’s given an estimated $40 million to a remarkable number of community groups in a legendary giving spree perhaps unrivaled in its personal touch and wide community impact.
But not many know the entire story, which began in that small farm in the Ukraine on the precipice of a war that would shape the world and leave an indelible mark on the now-90-year-old Maloff. The two ends of Maloff’s story are intimately connected—the young Ukrainian farm girl in war-torn Europe and the legendary South Lake Tahoe philanthropist who has changed the lives of literally thousands of community members in her adopted home.
Engulfed in War
Maloff’s parents, Ludwig and Lydia Bauer, were farmers from Poland who relocated to pre-World War II Ukraine. They tended a modest farm, where Maloff’s caregiver, Ricky Reich, says the farmhouse floor was made of dirt but still swept regularly by Lydia.
That humble yet bucolic beginning was shattered by World War II and the German invasion of Ukraine. Lisa’s childhood was caught in the middle, and then torn apart by the violent events of World War II.
Ukraine was decimated first by Stalin’s Soviet empire and later by the Nazi occupation. When the surprise German offensive began in Ukraine on June 22, 1941, the Soviet army began what historians describe as a “scorched earth” retreat, imploding buildings, burning crops and flooding mines in an attempt to leave nothing of value to the invading force. But the arrival of German forces brought an even darker reality.
An estimated 5 to 7 million Ukrainians perished in the conflict and occupation, and more than 700 cities and towns and 28,000 villages were destroyed. Historians estimate that 10 million people were left homeless throughout the country.
The Bauers were at the mercy of this ruthless conflict.
When the Nazis arrived, they forced many Ukrainians into labor camps. Others simply disappeared. Lisa’s father was taken away and never seen again. Nazi soldiers then came for Lisa and her mother (her future brother-in-law, Sasha, was able to hide Lisa’s two sisters).
“For some reason the military came into our home and took me and my mother and they put us in a concentration camp,” says Maloff. “We were just two little innocent women. We were no threat to anybody.”
Lisa was approximately 12 years old when she was taken to a concentration camp. After two years of internment, Sasha paid off the Nazi guards to gain her release. But while Lisa escaped with her life, her mother passed away from malnutrition in the camps.
Lisa left the camp as a young teen in war-ravaged Europe, without family except her two sisters. It was then that the kindness of strangers intervened and changed the trajectory of her life.
“A group of ladies in the U.S. here decided to sponsor orphans from the war. My sister and I qualified. We were under 18,” says Maloff, whose older sister Tania was over 18, but emigrated to the United States after the war.
Lisa came to live in an orphanage in Los Angeles. When she left the orphanage, she traveled to Lake Tahoe to visit her sister.
The year was 1959. She put down roots in South Lake Tahoe and never left. Over the next 60 years, Tahoe became not only Lisa’s home, but a place where she and her sisters reassembled, as best they could, the family they had lost in World War II.
The Maloffs Build a Business
The early years on Tahoe’s South Shore were a time of hard work and great enjoyment for the Maloffs.
Lisa’s husband Robert, whom she married in Los Angeles before moving to Tahoe, began a career in construction and hotel management while she held down two jobs, volunteering at the hospital auxiliary during the day and working for $2.50 an hour as a seamstress at Harrah’s at night.
What would soon become an impressive Maloff hotel empire began modestly. They purchased a small hotel called the Tropicana in South Lake Tahoe, and set the price for a room at $5 per night, says Maloff.
“When we filled up, we slept on the couch and rented our bedroom for $5,” she says. That one small hotel grew into an impressive number of hotel and casino holdings. Over time the Maloffs, along with business partners, came to own and run a number of properties, including the Lake Tahoe Inn, the Timber Cove Lodge and the Sundowner in Reno.
Maloff also had her own career taking care of high-profile entertainers who came to Harrah’s to perform. She got to know many of the celebrities who graced the stage at Harrah’s in those days, but admits that Sammy Davis Jr. was always her favorite. Maloff says every time the legendary singer made his way to the lake, he greeted her with a hug.
Maloff and her sisters ended up all living on the same street in Skyland, and Maloff become known as the “hostess with the mostest”—a purveyor of fine gatherings and social events.
“She never served the same meal twice,” says Reich. Maloff played the accordion, wore festive pink ensembles and crafted costumes for her friends.
Later in life, her husband passed away in 2011.
That is when Reich became her companion and caretaker. Reich had been remodeling condos within a complex where the Maloffs also owned a unit. Sasha Maloff took notice of his work, and Reich was hired to remodel the Maloffs’ unit. Sasha then introduced him to Maloff. Reich started helping her with numerous projects. He became a friend, and earned her trust.
“The crazy thing was I had no clue who the Maloffs were,” says Reich. After Robert’s passing, Reich and Maloff began passing time together, dining and conversing about life.
“We laugh at the same things. We see life similarly. We look at life with the same outlook,” says Reich.
Dedicated to Giving
In the period after her husband’s death and, later, her sisters’, Maloff was coping with the loss and the sudden responsibility of handling the substantial finances she now controlled. Reich, her right-hand man, moved her from Skyland to a smaller home that was easier to navigate, cooked for her and drove her to appointments and gatherings.
It was during this time that Maloff heard a story about a man who asked his daughter to bury him with all his money. She decided she never wanted to follow that path.
“I felt very fortunate. My husband and I were very well off and I wanted to share it. I don’t want to be buried with a check, so I am giving away as much as I can,” says Maloff.
What ensued was a remarkable string of donations to countless local charities and organizations. She donated $10 million in her late husband’s name for a state-of-the-art orthopedic and wellness center at Barton Health. She donated $5.8 million to Lake Tahoe Community College for a new university center that offers four-year degrees. She donated over $3 million to Whittell High School for an athletic field and track. Another $3 million check was sent to the Boys & Girls Club of South Lake Tahoe for a new facility. The list goes on and on. Virtually every day, Reich receives phone calls asking for Maloff’s support, and she responds to many with her unwavering generosity.
“It has transformed the community, and I think that will be her overarching legacy,” says Jeff DeFranco, president of Lake Tahoe Community College.
Maloff’s donation made it possible for South Lake Tahoe residents to received a four-year college degree without leaving the community. But she not only donated the funding to build the University Center, she also contributed $100,000 in scholarships, ensuring that every year for years to come, 10 Lake Tahoe Community College students will become Maloff scholars as a result of her generosity.
“The University Center was not going to happen without Lisa,” says DeFranco.
But in true Maloff fashion, the donation wasn’t a simple transaction. It came with a healthy dose of personality and the personal touches Lisa adds to each gift.
“She drinks this combination of merlot and chardonnay wine and she jokes that she invented this wine, ‘Charlot.’ So we had this winemaker make this wine for one of our events,” says DeFranco.
At Barton Health, Maloff’s generosity will be felt by generations of orthopedic patients.
“Lisa Maloff’s generosity sparked a new era in healthcare for Lake Tahoe with the opening of the Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness inside the Robert Maloff Center,” says Dr. Clint Purvance, Barton Health president and CEO. “Using prevention and education to enhance health and wellness within our community, this new model of care takes a whole-person approach designed to treat the individual, not just injury or disease.”
The Center is home to Barton’s elite orthopedic care team, an integral part of medical care in such an active mountain community.
It is not just high-profile community projects Maloff supports. She often gives checks to individual South Lake Tahoe residents who need help, handing them over with a warm hug.
The breadth and scope of her donations are unique, says Bill Roby, director of the El Dorado Community Foundation.
“It is rare. It is a rare individual that has that vision and ability to engage at that level,” says Roby.
Maloff’s impact is not only in her giving, but also in her leadership, says Roby.
“The extent at which they raise up the nonprofit, community-based organizations in Tahoe is a life-changing experience for those organizations,” says Roby. “These organizations are often on the funding treadmill, and that treadmill can be really fast. Through their giving they have taken them off that treadmill. It allows them to dream, ‘What else can we do?’”
One of Maloff’s favorite ways of giving is when she dresses up as Mrs. Claus for the annual Christmas party for Tahoe Youth and Family Services. More than 125 children line up to meet Maloff as she impersonates Mrs. Claus, and each child receives a Christmas gift and an ample amount of Maloff’s attention.
In those moments, the girl who was orphaned in war-torn Ukraine, left without parents or a home, finds the immense joy of giving the gift of love to the line of children crowded around her.
“It means a lot to me because I was raised on the farm in the Ukraine and I survived a concentration camp in the war,” says Maloff.
And despite giving everything to the community she calls home, she is still astounded by what she receives in return. Her living room in Skyland is filled with letters of gratitude from the community and banners expressing the community’s thanks for her boundless generosity.
“People have gone out of their way to show their appreciation of what I have done,” says Maloff.
Recently, the City of South Lake Tahoe, in a tribute to Maloff’s contributions to the community, started the process of renaming Airport Road “Lisa Maloff Way.” The recognition brought back memories of her childhood.
“Isn’t that a miracle? I was raised on a farm and here I am, they are naming a street after me. I am overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed,” says Maloff.
But it works both ways, of course. For South Lake Tahoe, the miracle is that by some wild twist of fate, a young Ukrainian girl would improbably survive the horrors of World War II, find a home and happiness in Tahoe, and become a legendary benefactor for the entire community.
David Bunker is Truckee-based writer and editor.