Remembering My Friend, Jack Lunzer
Jack Lunzer, who died this past December, was famous for his collection of Jewish books, texts and incunabula. It was the largest collection of Judaica in private hands, and Sotheby’s described it as “quite simply the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.”
But to those us who knew Jack, the man, he was one of the most interesting, multifaceted people we ever came across. When you met with him, you never knew which persona of his you might encounter. The international diamond dealer, the Orthodox Jewish follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Frankfort, the generous philanthropist, the Yekke, the English gentleman, the Yiddish-speaking Belgian, the Italian count, the African diplomat, the opera buff, philatelist, horse breeder, skier, horticulturalist, man-about-town, bon viveur, joker, pious Jew or scholar. He was all of those, and more. Not to mention the doting father of five special girls.
I was connected to him indirectly. His brother, Henry, had married my mother’s cousin. I first met him when I was 11, and I was invited for tea one Shabbat at his elegant home in the Hampstead Garden suburb of London. The long table was laid impeccably with the finest china and silver. His elegant, perfectionist Italian wife, Ruth, ways made sure everything was of the best quality.
We were seated, and the tea was poured by uniformed staff. As I tried to get strawberry jam from one of the containers, I dropped my spoon, and its contents stained the tablecloth bright red. I was mortified. Jack saw how embarrassed I was. He reached out, picked up the jar and turned it upside down, spilling all of its contents onto the table. “There you are, young man,” he said, smiling. “No need to feel bad about it.”
My aunt and uncle who also lived in the suburb were very close friends with the Lunzers. It was through them that I became a regular visitor whenever my parents brought me up to London. Everything about Jack was impressive: his home, his vintage Rolls Royce, the flagpole in front of his house with the Guinea-Bissau flag, signifying that he was in fact their consul to the UK.
Jack was born in Antwerp. His family established itself in diamonds, and had built the Eisenmann Synagogue. When the family left Belgium for London, they joined and became prime movers in the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash. Jack went to work in the family diamond business, and in due course took it over and expanded it well beyond its initial parameters.
Every time I visited Jack, there would be another visitor there: an ancient rabbi from the east, a modern one from the west, a Zionist, an anti-Zionist, a duke, a count, a magnate or a beggar. Jack spoke to each in a different way, as if they inhabited the very same world.
Somewhere along the line, Jack began to collect old Jewish books. What started off as a few shelves in his spacious home turned into a whole room, which then turned into an annex. Books took over his life. Of all his passions, beyond his family, this was the one that consumed him, and hardly anything else seemed to matter.
He used to hold regular services in his home on Friday evenings, which I sometimes attended. One Rosh Hashanah, he was very agitated because I wore a black yarmulke on my head instead of a white one. He assured me that my father would not have been so lacking in respect for tradition (in the nicest way, of course, with a smile on his face). He brought me a white crocheted yarmulke (which probably came from somewhere like Khartoum) to wear the next day. I still have it.
I doubt that any one person knew everything about him. I once asked him if I could write his biography. He laughed, and said he didn’t want anyone to know his secrets. The last time I saw him was in New York in 2009. It was at Sotheby’s. He was sitting like a king among his beloved books, enjoying being courted and consulted, greeting scholars, friends and well-wishers with geniality and good humor. He was getting older, but the magic and the charisma, as well as the charm, were still there.
His world is gone, both the secular and the religious. Even his library is no longer completely intact. Nothing lasts forever. But I will always treasure his memory and so, too, will generations of bibliophiles.