Helmut Friedlaender: Lawyer, banker and book collector who built up a remarkable library

There are not many left who saw at first hand the peril that faced Jews in Germany in 1933, still fewer who had to take the decision to flee. Helmut Friedlaender, later prominent as a businessman and book collector in New York, was one such.

Born in Berlin in 1913, the son of a successful lawyer, he had already finished what had been good education in the classics, studying law at Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin, when he heard rumours that Hitler was about to close Germany's borders. He acted immediately, and in March 1933 he picked up his younger sister and took the next train to the Netherlands, and thence to join their parents on holiday in Italy. From there he went to Switzerland, finishing his education at Lausanne with a doctoral thesis (in French) on hydroelectric enterprises.

From Switzerland he moved to London, and found work in the City at the brokering firm of Kemp Gee, where he learned the elements of international arbitrage. Then, like so many refugees, he went to America, sailing on the SS Rex in 1936. He had a letter of introduction to Abraham & Co, investment bankers in Manhattan. Assuming that the City sartorial code applied on Wall Street, he arrived for his interview in black coat and striped trousers, bowler hat and umbrella. The clerks and office boys stared and sniggered, but Friedlaender was not put off and got the job.

He was deemed unfit for active service during the Second World War – he had broken one leg riding (his favourite pastime), then the other while skiing. Instead he became a spokesman for the radio station Voice of America, broadcasting in German. As such he was forbidden to announce how many were in concentration camps, lest the numbers seem hyperbolical.

After the war, both as a lawyer and banker, he came to have an increasingly important part in many concerns, from the President's Council of the Center for International Studies at the New York University School of Law, to Ametek, a company making precision instruments and small electric motors, on whose board he sat for more than 50 years.

In 1944 he became financial adviser to William Rosenwald, second son of the chairman of Sears, Roebuck, and an imaginative philanthropist. Friedlaender and he became close friends as well as business partners. With Rosenwald he took part in the creation of the United Jewish Appeal, supporting Jews driven from their homes all over the world. They also financed 1407 Broadway, the first post-war skyscraper, and bought the Empire State Building for the Rosenwald Group. Friedlaender also helped to create Western Union International.

Besides these increasingly lucrative business ventures, Friedlaender built up a remarkable library. He was a discriminating as well as energetic collector. Always a copious reader, in Greek and Latin as well as English, French and German, he began to collect books in 1970, seduced by a visit to Bernard Quaritch, the great London antiquarian bookshop. He started with incunabula (books printed before 1501) and medieval manuscripts. He acquired one of the first printed classical texts, Cicero's De Officiis, printed on vellum at Mainz in 1465; and two books bound at Oxford in the 15th century, one inscribed by a monk at Fountains Abbey. Among the manuscripts was a copy of the Moralia in Job of St Gregory in its original chemise binding.

His later books included a fine set of Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie (1751-72), and a presentation copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall (1776-82). He bought works by Leibniz, Spinoza and Giordano Bruno, books from the Aldine, Ashendene and Golden Cockerel presses, and the publications of the Roxburghe Club. He had Kafka and Günter Grass complete, and first or early editions of Goethe, Heine and Pushkin. He also collected Baedeker guide-books: "Have you any Baedekers?" was his way of breaking the ice in any bookshop he went in to.

If eclectic, his choice was always shrewd, and when in 2001 he decided to sell his books (he wanted a catalogue, and to enjoy the sale), they made high prices, thanks to the competition between two rival collectors, one Dutch and one Swedish. Both of them subsequently fell on hard times, and Friedlaender delightedly bought back books he had sold at much less than the prices he had previously got for them. He welcomed his returning orphans, saying "I'm going to take them back and give them a proper home," and started collecting again.

He got great pleasure from the company his books brought him, becoming a fellow of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, and honorary member of the Grolier Club. He was a generous benefactor to many, not least in supporting the catalogue of Hebrew incunabula at the British Library and the complete incunabula catalogue of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

He was hospitable, too, giving memorable birthday parties: his 90th at Kensington Palace; and his 95th at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage. His energy and his sense of humour were alike inexhaustible, and it is hard to believe that his tall, lean figure, stooping in old age, his mischievous welcoming smile, will no longer be seen in New York or London, where he was equally at home.

Nicolas Barker

Helmut Nathan Friedlaender, lawyer, financial adviser and book collector: born Berlin 17 June 1913; married 1944 Ernestine Fried (died 1982; two daughters); died Yarmouth, Maine 25 November 2008.

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