With the memorable name Jack Diamond, a salesman at the Nebraska Furniture Mart greeted thousands of customers in a career that ended Tuesday — after 58 years.
He worked on the sales floor, not in the front office, but you could call him the company's “chairman.” He sold countless chairs, recliners and sofas.
Does he have any idea how many?
“I do not have any idea,” Jack said, “but I know one idea: All the years I am here, I didn't build up any enemies. Customers are friends who come back to me, and I am proud of that.”
Though he's an icon at a place that calls itself “America's largest home furnishings store,” the back story of Jack Diamond has been mostly unknown to generations of customers.
A Holocaust survivor in Poland who lived in a forest and at times ate grass to stay alive, he and his wife arrived in Omaha in 1949. He used his original name back then, “Dimenstein,” later Americanized to “Diamond.”
On March 24, a three-paragraph item in The World-Herald was headlined:
D.P. Couple Free
After 3-Year Wait
The article reported that Zelik Dimenstein, 26, and his wife, 20 — who spent three years in a Displaced Persons Camp in the American zone in Herzog, Germany — had arrived in Omaha to make their home in the United States.
Two children, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren later, the couple leave Omaha today to live near their daughters and their families in New York.
Jack, 90, said he likes to stay busy — and just might look for a job. “It's possible.”
* * *
Jack and Minde Diamond have enjoyed a good life together in Omaha, though they arrived 63 years ago with nothing, at first staying with his aunt who sponsored them.
Could he speak English?
“Oh, fluently!” he recalled facetiously before answering truthfully with a smile: “Not a word.”
He obtained a job with the Metropolitan Utilities District, laying pipe, installing service and, yes, digging ditches. “I am not ashamed of that.”
A handyman who could build and fix things, he got a job at the Furniture Mart in 1954 and never left. In time, he also invested in real estate and managed apartments. But he always worked at the Mart, often fulfilling requests from founder Rose Blumkin.
The Diamonds have attended Beth Israel Synagogue, and their two daughters graduated from Central High before attending college in New York. Today, Leta Greenstein and Florie Gasner live five minutes apart in Monsey, N.Y., a 45-minute drive north of New York City.
“We have been after our parents for years and years to move near all our children and grandchildren,” Leta said. “We want them now.”
The sisters are in Omaha to help their parents move out of their home, where they have lived for 48 years, a half-mile or so north of Memorial Park.
It's a happy milestone in two remarkable lives that also included times of horror. In the spring of 1942, Nazis destroyed their town of Dolhinov, Poland. Zelik was away doing forced labor, and his mother was among hundreds massacred.
Zelik (Jack) lived in the woods. Minde and others were sent to a labor camp.
Leta said a compassionate German soldier informed her mother and a few other prisoners that people were coming to exterminate Jews the next day. Minde was among those who shimmied under the barbed wire and escaped.
Zelik, meanwhile, became a member of a resistance group, the Polish partisans, and helped hide other Jews from capture. Even today, he finds it difficult talking about that time, and about what happened to his family.
“I had a very educated mother,” he said. “Whatever spare time she had, I saw her with a book. For me, education has been the first priority.”
How did he himself survive?
“I was young, I was running, I was hiding,” he said. “Lots of ways. You eat what you find. Grass is not only for cattle.”
* * *
Every morning during the week, before going to work, Jack Diamond arrives 15 minutes early for services at Beth Israel.
Rabbi Jonathan Gross, who calls Jack “my personal hero,” said it has been a blessing to start days by praying with him. “He is the epitome of integrity, a character out of a story.”
Jack has never spoken publicly about his life story, said the rabbi, who has made audio recordings of many conversations with him over the years.
Some stories appear on Gross' “Rabbi in the Middle of America” blog. One tells of Zelik's returning to Dolhinov after the massacre to find the snow running red with blood.
Rabbi Gross said he often introduces the Diamonds to children because kids today “are the last generation that will be able to tell their children that they knew people who survived the Holocaust.”
Though devoted to his Jewish faith, Jack said one of his best friends, “like a brother,” is Leo Wilwerding, a Catholic he has known since they worked together at MUD long ago.
Said Leo: “I worked with him on a crew when I was just a kid. He's always been a very nice guy and an extremely hard worker. And he says he has never sold something that was not worth what he charged for it.”
Bob Batt, executive vice president of the Nebraska Furniture Mart and grandson of Rose Blumkin, “Mrs. B.,” grew up seeing Jack Diamond at the Mart.
“Other than Mrs. B., Jack was the No. 1 salesman at the Furniture Mart,” Batt said. “He knows what customers want and he's never been out of style, whether in the 1950s or in 2012. He is a core reason that we've been successful.”
Jack insisted that the company not organize a farewell party. Colleagues once thought Jack might make a run at Mrs. B's longevity record — she worked almost to the time she died at 104.
Quipped Batt: “104 is our mandatory retirement age.”
After witnessing death and surviving the Holocaust on the run, Zelik Dimenstein arrived in Omaha to start a new life. Like a diamond, he had many facets — he was smart, kind, skillful and humble and he could outwork anyone.
“I am a working guy,” Jack Diamond said. “The people I waited on were working people,” he said. “I believe in treating people the way I would like to be treated. If it's not good for them, it's not good for me.
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