Britain's community of orthodox Jews is still in shock following the sudden death of the philanthropist who called himself "God's postman". The official period of mourning for Benzion Dunner ended at the weekend, but friends say his absence will be felt for much, much longer. Mr Dunner was a one-off.
Two days before his fatal road accident, Mr Dunner opened his home in Golders Green, north London, to any member of his community who had been hit by hard times. According to one witness, thousands joined the queue. Every one was received with a smile and an attentive ear – including a few, it is said, that Mr Dunner knew and did not like, but who were treated courteously all the same. He stayed up until 4am, so that no one went away empty-handed. By then, he had distributed cheques totalling about £2m.
The occasion was Purim, the Feast of Esther, when Jews celebrate their escape from Persian captivity. One of the commandments attached to the occasion is to get drunk. Most of the Dunner family spent Purim at the Normandie Hotel, in Bournemouth, while he stayed at home to use his chequebook to brighten the lives of fellow Jews. The next day, he observed Shabbah, the Jewish Sabbath. He had to wait until Saturday until he could get ready for his car journey to Dorset.
On the A338 spur road outside Bournemouth, his £150,000 Bentley Arnage collided with a Toyota Celica and plunged into woodland. Two of his children, aged 20 and nine, and a 77-year-old friend of the family emerged from the wrecked car with minor injuries. So did the two men in the Toyota. Initially, it was thought Mr Dunner had suffered a heart attack at the wheel, but his inquest was told the cause of death was multiple injuries resulting from the collision.
His funeral was held the next day, after the Bournemouth coroner had opened and adjourned an inquest in order that the body could be released for burial within 24 hours in accordance with Jewish custom. Although he had been dead for barely 18 hours, up to 5,000 mourners crowded into the orthodox Jewish cemetery in Enfield, north London, including leaders of the Jewish community in New York, who had flown to London especially.
Even by the standards of orthodox Jews, whose religion requires them to be charitable, Mr Dunner was well known for his exuberant generosity. One man who approached him during one of his visits to New York asking for $200 (£100) was given $15,000.
Leon Symons, who reported his death for The Jewish Chronicle and visited the family during the period of mourning, said: "One of the anchors of the religion is giving to charity, but orthodox Jews are saying that they don't know anyone who proportionately gave more than he did.
"And there was no self-aggrandisement attached. This was done quietly. The people who knew about it knew about it, but there was no advertising the fact. No one was refused. It really has been a terrible shock for the community as a whole, because he was a titan of philanthropy."
A family friend said: "He called himself 'God's postman' and said that he saw no point in having money just sitting in a bank account. Countless individuals and families depended on him to make sure they always had food on their tables. Communities people have never heard of came to him for help. He was the most amazing man – and he did it all with a smile on his face."
An orthodox Jew from a sect which traced its origins to a part of the old Russian empire, with adherents in the USA, Britain and Israel, Mr Dunner gave his mornings to religious observance. Business was done in the afternoon. His grandfather, Josef Dunner, was one of the last Jewish orthodox rabbis ordained in Germany before the Holocaust. He was chief rabbi in Königsberg, East Prussia, which was separated from the rest of Germany by Polish territory. When he was arrested in 1938, the Poles would not permit the Germans to transport him by land to a concentration camp, and sympathisers in Britain obtained a visa that rescued him.
Mr Dunner's widow, Esther, is the daughter of another eminent London property dealer, William Stern, who single-handedly built up a huge empire in the 1960s, but was badly burnt when interest rates shot up in 1973. His empire's collapse was then the biggest bankruptcy in British business history. Mr Dunner learnt from his father-in-law without repeating his mistakes, and could afford to give away millions at regular intervals and live comfortably with his wife and nine children in a big house in one of the most expensive avenues in Golders Green.
Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, a religious judge who knew Mr Dunner for 20 years, told The Hendon & Finchley Times: "He was a unique businessman who donated a lot of money to all types of charity. He was a very strong supporter of Torah institutions - yeshivas [Jewish religious seminaries] and schools - and supported many people financially and morally. He invited them to his house and he was always available to make them feel good. There's not a man to have a bad word to say about Benzion Dunner."Reuse content