This Day in Jewish History / Odd Man Out in Zabar's Troika Dies

Murray Klein evaded death, reportedly smuggled arms to Irgun, battled with the Zabar scions and learned how to enjoy life.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On December 6, 2007, Murray Klein, the Holocaust survivor and former gulag prisoner who made his way to America, where he helped to turn Zabar’s into New York’s most famous food emporium, died, at the age of 84.

Mordechai Klein was born on March 25, 1923, in a shtetl in Soviet Ukraine, near the Romanian border. While his parents and five siblings all died in German concentration camps, Klein survived the Holocaust by being sent to a Soviet labor camp. (He had been away at school when his family was arrested.) When he escaped from there, he is said to have become involved with the Irgun’s operation in Europe, helping to smuggle arms to the Jewish militia in Palestine.

After the end of World War II, Klein was held in a displaced persons camp that was situated in the Cinecitta Studios in Rome between 1945 and 1947. His longtime co-partner at Zabar’s, Saul Zabar, told The New York Times, at the time of Klein’s death, that, “Even in the camp, we heard he was running his own bread business.”

Discount caviar

Zabar’s had been founded in 1934 by Louis Zabar, also the product of a Ukrainian shtetl, who had arrived in New York nine years earlier. In 1941, the store moved into its current location, at 80th and Broadway on the Upper West Side.

During the course of the 1980s, as business mushroomed, Zabar expanded that store, buying out most of the adjoining real estate north of the store on the west side of Broadway.

After the death of Louis Zabar, in 1950, his sons Saul and Stanley took over the business, which offered the usual fare of a dairy deli: smoked fish, a variety of cheeses, and coffee roasted by the store.

Murray Klein arrived in New York in 1950, with the help of a cousin, who also helped him get a job as a stock boy at one of the Zabar shops (in its early years, the business had as many as six outlets). After going off on his own, briefly, to open a hardware store, Klein returned to Zabar’s in 1960, as the owner of a one-third share of the business.

Klein ran the retailing end, and the brothers Saul and later Stanley were the buyers, who traveled further and further to find and import gourmet cheeses, oils, caviar, chocolates, coffees, lox, of course, and most anything else one could imagine appealing to the sophisticated Western palate.
As for cost, Zabar’s had plenty of customers with unlimited budgets, but Klein’s policy was to sell everything for the lowest price possible. In 1975, when it saw that he was selling its product for 30 percent less than the competition, the Cuisinart company refused to ship any more food processors to Klein. He sued the manufacturer. They settled.

Ideas literally hitting the head

It was, in fact, Klein who had the idea of opening up the Zabar’s mezzanine, where they began selling cookware and equipment – besides food processors, they offered espresso makers, pepper mills, salad spinners, ice-cream machines, to name but a tiny fraction – and it was he who insisted on hanging items from the ceiling so that shoppers would always be bumping into the merchandise.

By the 1980s, Zabar’s had also adopted a regular loss-leader strategy, by which they would offer a gourmet item like truffles or caviar at cost, or lower, on the assumption that once someone was lured into the store, they would buy much much more than a jar of Beluga fish eggs. Readers of the New York Times in those years would read constantly, in both news columns and in ads, of price wars with Macy’s over caviar and Perugina chocolates – battles that Murray Klein always seemed to win.

Those same readers also knew about the emotional feuding that went on between Klein and his partners – those who had the Zabar “royal blood,” as he put it, running through their veins. (“You could say we don’t speak,” Klein told a reporter in 1985.) As early as the mid-80s, Klein was demanding that they buy him out. He couldn’t take the pressure, he told the Times in 1985, and just wanted “a year – maybe two years – to learn how to enjoy life before I die.”

In fact, Murray Klein stayed on until October 1994, when he sold his one-third share to his partners and kicked himself upstairs to the position of “consultant.” Even then, they had to go to court to haggle about the exact terms of his departure. Always the optimist, Klein told the Times, when he retired, that he intended to use his time to take a cruise in the Mediterranean: “I’m a millionaire now. So I have to spend the money fast.”

In fact, he had another 13 years.

Klein, who died of lung cancer, was survived by his wife of 53 years, the former Edith Bronner, and a son and a daughter – neither of whom went into the food business.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Inside Zabar's, at the meat department.Credit: Wikimedia Commons