Celebrating Donald Zec on his 100th birthday

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I’d like to share a family celebration with you, the 100th birthday, last Tuesday, of my uncle Donald (Zec), one of eleven siblings born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, all the other siblings now passed (including my own mother). Donald’s celebrity, principally as the Daily Mirror’s film critic, brought him to the grateful attention of millions. His interviews included amusing and often perceptive dialogues with Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, James Dean, the Beatles and many others. But rather than add to accolades already voiced at his birthday party and elsewhere and/or appreciations from the party table by Howard Jacobson, Don Black, Michael Grade and, as expected, Her Majesty (the latter two via letter) – I would like to pay tribute to Donald’s support of me, personally.
It began in the early sixties when he got wind of the fact that I’d fallen in love with classical music. One Sunday lunchtime he and his lovely (late) wife Frances turned up at our front door, whisked me off to their home where they fed me my favourite meal (still is – egg & chips!), enthused about music and played me records. Delivering me back home afterwards they gifted me a generous pile of 78s (still a currency of the recording medium in those days), including the whole of Smetana’s Má vlast, already a firm favourite, and so I was guaranteed hours of pleasurable listening.
But that wasn’t the most significant of Donald’s prompts. Years later, when I started to make modest headway along the career path I’m currently following, Frances phoned and invited my wife and I for a meal with a view to marking a certain level of progress on my part. Both meal and meeting were a triumph. Donald and Frances were affectionate, encouraging, amusing, enquiring, compassionate, in fact everything you’d want of older relations, the sorts you’d be proud to credit as being your ‘uncle and aunt’. And so our relationship blossomed into true friendship, past Frances’s tragic passing into Donald’s late phase of creativity (ie, in his eighties and nineties) – which meant learning to sight read and play on the piano pieces that Frances had played to him (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin), more prose writing (as well as verse), painting (with oils and, later, Ipad), sculpting and engaging in rigorous conversation concerning politics and current affairs. Our emails and phone calls are frequent, our personal encounters perhaps less so, but still immensely nourishing. Donald’s humour is still a given, with too many vivid examples to relate here – except maybe one occasion when I phoned him at lunchtime to check things out, asked him whether he was eating and he shot back, quite spontaneously, ‘who’s this … the Yom Kippur police?!’ His love of music was always uppermost in our conversations, mostly concerning great violinists. When younger he’d played the violin himself and took loan of my cello for a while 25 or so years ago.

So, how to sum him up? A renaissance man who loves family, culture, intellectual and creative challenges, tradition, and relating to people (as Don Black said he’s still making new friends), and who is endlessly curious about all aspects of life. Are these specifically ‘Jewish’ qualities? Not at all. But there is surely something about this mélange of virtues that you can identify with numerous distinguished Jews – think of Jacob Bronowski, George Steiner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jonathan, Lord Sacks, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Bronislaw Huberman and others. And Donald definitely has a keen sense of his own Jewish identity, something worth remembering especially now when anti-Semitism is once again lurking in the shadows of our society. So in closing I would say that not only am I grateful to be Donald’s nephew, but because of him, I’m also very happy to be Jewish.

20 thoughts on “Celebrating Donald Zec on his 100th birthday

  1. “Donald and Frances were affectionate, encouraging, amusing, enquiring, compassionate, ”

    It evidently runs in the family Rob! It’s a wonderful tribute to your uncle. As a committed Christian I stand with all Jews, especially against the current wave of anti-semitism. You have a great family heritage and a great faith to belong to. God bless you and your uncle.

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      1. writetobare

        A belated Happy Birthday to Mr.Zec . I knew the first time he showed me a painting of his that he had a raw talent that you cannot learn. I’m delighted to hear he continued painting.

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    1. ‘As a committed Christian I stand with all Jews’ and as a committed (though not practising) Jew, I stand by all Christians, and other faiths for that matter. We stand to learn so much from one another and I know Donald would agree. Thank you Philip.

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  2. Fano Rydberg

    How splendid! I had no idea Donald Zec was still with us. I used to read his comments as a kid many, many decades ago. Congratulations!

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  3. BertieRussell

    A moving tribute Rob. I would also add the incomparable Eric Hobsbawm, and the dazzling Jonathan Miller to your list. To me, the existence of such individuals is a constant spur, to acquire a greater familiarity with the total compass of man’s faculties, to shun impoverished horizons.
    Thank you for the post !

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    1. Thanks Bertie. There are yet more I suppose, from all creeds and intellectual orientations (atheists included) but I just wanted to make the point. Still, as you so rightly say, ‘to acquire a greater familiarity with the total compass of man’s faculties, to shun impoverished horizons’ is the thing – couldn’t be better put! Best wishes. Rob.

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  4. Cynthia Gamble

    Hello Rob,
    What a very fine tribute to your uncle’s amazing qualities that I feel you have inherited too! Very many congratulations and warm wishes,
    Cynthia

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  5. Paul Dunn

    I should just like to register my delight at happening upon this thread & learning that the great Donald Zec is still with us.

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  6. Hello Rob,
    I haven’t read your blog before. The article giving details of you relationship with your uncle, Donald Zec was extremely informative and quiet moving in it’s detail. My dad lasted a century and never lost any of his northern whit and charm, will miss him till it’s my turn.

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  7. Andrea Lechner

    Thanks, Rob, this is a truly beautiful tribute. If only we could all have uncles like him!
    Hearing about Má Vlast reminds me of the first time I saw the Vltava, having heard the music during my childhood in Buenos Aires. As my father was born in Prague but had to emigrate as a child due to the Nazis, Má Vlast was always the reminder of his home. This is a beautiful tribute of what still unites us all as Jews.

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    1. Thank you Andrea! You might be interested to know that there’s a complete live recording of Má vlast put out by Supraphon recorded ‘live’ during the early days of the Occupation by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich. The audience goes wild at the end of each piece and at the very end, after the final tone poem Blánik, suddenly breaks into the Czech National Anthem – it is an unspeakably emotional moment. You can access it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEHlj2qwF3I Fondest wishes. Rob

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