Jack Diamond, a popular furniture salesman known to generations of shoppers in his 58-year career at the Nebraska Furniture Mart, has died of COVID-19 at age 97.
What most of his customers did not know is that he grew up in Poland as Zelik Dimenstein and narrowly survived the Holocaust. He and his wife, Minde, arrived in Omaha in 1949 from a postwar displaced persons camp in Germany.
“He always told us to be grateful for everything,” said granddaughter Yaira Greenstein-Perla, “and that he and Grandma never thought in their wildest dreams that they would survive, live so long and have such a large family.”
After his 2012 retirement in Omaha at 90, he and Minde moved to Monsey, New York, just north of New York City, to live near daughters Leta Greenstein and Florie Gasner, Omaha Central High graduates. His wife of nearly 74 years and their daughters survive him, as do 10 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.
He died in a New Jersey hospital across the Hudson River from Yankee Stadium on April 27. Among those watching his funeral, livestreamed on Zoom, was Ron Blumkin of Omaha, chairman of the Furniture Mart.
“Jack was one of the most loyal, dedicated, hardworking, smartest people I’ve ever come in contact with,” Blumkin said. “He not only was a tremendous teammate at work but also a great friend of the Blumkin family. Mrs. B called him ‘my diamond.’ ”
“Mrs. B” was Rose Blumkin, Ron’s grandmother. An immigrant from Belarus, she founded the Mart in 1937, and it has become the largest home furnishings store in North America, with stores also in Iowa, Kansas and Texas.
She worked until shortly before her death at 104, and the Furniture Mart playfully declared 104 its “mandatory retirement age.” It looked for a while like Jack Diamond might make a run at that.
But his early years were harrowing. In the spring of 1942, Nazis destroyed his town of Dolhinov, Poland. Zelik was away doing forced labor, and his mother was among hundreds massacred. Minde and others were sent to a labor camp, but she escaped under barbed wire.
Zelik (Jack) fought as a member of a resistance group, the Russian partisans, and helped hide other Jews from capture. Somehow he, too, survived.
“I was young. I was running. I was hiding,” he said in 2012. “You eat what you find. Grass is not only for cattle.”
When the couple got to Omaha, sponsored by Jack’s aunt, The World-Herald reported the Dimensteins’ arrival from the displaced persons camp under the headline “D.P. Couple Free After 3-Year Wait.”
Jack got a job with the Metropolitan Utilities District, laying pipe, installing service and, yes, digging ditches. He learned English and had his name legally changed.
He joined the original Nebraska Furniture Mart downtown in 1954 and never left the company until retiring from the 72nd Street location. He also invested in real estate and managed apartments, was active at Beth Israel Synagogue and lived near Memorial Park.
At his funeral, the story was told that he once was introduced to famed Omaha investor Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway had purchased the Mart. Jack politely said hello but stepped away to help a customer.
“I am a working guy,” he said on his last day at the store. “The people I waited on were working people. 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.”
His granddaughter said the family would welcome photos or notes at zelikdiamond.com.
Ron Blumkin first worked at age 12 in the downtown store’s shipping room with Jack Diamond. Through his long career on the sales floor, Jack sold countless easy chairs, recliners and sofas.
Said Blumkin, the company chairman: “Jack was the chairman.”
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.