General Topics

Jack Lunzer


Jack Lunzer, who died this past December, was famous for his Valmadonna 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 him, Jack, the man, was one of the most interesting, multifaceted persons one could ever come across. When you met him, you would never know which persona 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 and scholar. He was all of those, and more. Not to mention the doting father of five special girls.

We were connected indirectly. His brother Henry had married my mother’s cousin. I first met him when I was eleven. I was invited for tea one Shabbat at his elegant home in Hampstead Garden Suburb in London. The long table was laid impeccably with the finest china and silver above the starched white lace tablecloth. His elegant, perfectionist Italian wife Ruth and he always made sure everything was of the best and most fashionable. We were seated, and tea was poured by uniformed staff. As I reached out for the strawberry confiture to spread on my scone, I dropped the 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 its contents onto the table. “There you are young man,” he said, smiling, “no need to feel bad about it.” What a generous and thoughtful act. But of course, it made me feel even more embarrassed, despite his good intentions.

My aunt and uncle who also lived in the Suburb were very close friends with the Lunzers. They often went skiing together in Switzerland. It was through them that I became a regular visitor whenever my parents brought me up to London from our Oxfordshire home. Everything about Jack was impressive—his home, his vintage Rolls Royce car that he said he needed to impress his clients. So was the flagpole in front of his house with the Guinea-Bissau flag, signifying that he was in fact their consul to the UK. One of the great coups of his life was when he cornered the Guinea-Bissau diamond production from under the noses of DeBeers.

Jack was born in Antwerp. His family had established itself in diamonds and had built the Eisenmann Synagogue, a little island of the Frankfort Jewish community, with its combination of deep commitment to traditional Judaism and a very Germanic openminded cultural outlook. When the family left Belgium for London, they joined and became prime movers of the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash, which used to be called “Munks” after its very cultured founding rabbi, Dr. Elie Munk. It too was an island of Germanic Judaism and held out for a long time before the wave of Charedi excess swept it firmly into the fundamentalist camp. 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 his own language and as if they inhabited the very same world. And each time I visited, I would discover that Jack had a new passion. Of all of them in those early years, the opera was the most consuming. As with everything, he threw himself enthusiastically into it and became an expert, a patron, and an aficionado.

Somewhere along the line, he 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, as he gathered around him experts and academics and became an expert in his own right. Of all his passions, beyond his family, this was the one that consumed him, and hardly anything else seemed to matter. Over the years I would see him occasionally, at family affairs or seated amongst his books, pointing out some unique feature of a particular volume. Or running off a list of all the Jewish books ever printed in, say, Venice.

He used to hold regular services in his home on Friday evenings, and his family expanded it into a small synagogue in the Suburb at which I was occasionally invited to officiate. One Rosh Hashana he was very agitated because that I wore a black kipa 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 kipa, which probably came from somewhere like Khartoum, to wear the next day (which I still have).

I doubt anyone 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 everything there was to know about him. The last time I saw him was in New York in 2009. It was at Sotheby’s. He was sitting like a king amongst 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.