Henry W. Eisner, 83, ad agency president

May 25, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Henry W. Eisner, who fled Nazi Germany with his family early in World War II and established a successful Baltimore advertising agency, died of heart failure Sunday at Sinai Hospital. He was 83.

Mr. Eisner was chairman emeritus of Eisner Communications, a company he bought four decades ago. His clients included the Cat's Paw Rubber Co., Jos. A. Bank Clothiers and Fair Lanes.

"Henry was a highly regarded advertising man who never boasted or bragged about his accomplishments. He was a very soft-spoken, quiet and self-effacing man who was during his career a hard-driving businessman," said Baltimore investment broker Julius Westheimer.

"He came here with none of the advantages and became a friendly competitor and colleague. I greatly admired his life struggle," said Gilbert Sandler, a retired public relations executive and author.

Mr. Eisner was born and raised in Nordhausen, Germany, where his father was a successful manufacturer of shirts, aprons and dresses.

The family's tranquillity was shattered in 1938 when Nazi thugs, on orders from Adolf Hitler, engaged in the night of terror known as Kristallnacht, when Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed, synagogues were burned and Jews were driven from their homes and arrested.

"It was a formidable memory for him. He remembered they came banging on the door in the middle of the night and made them leave immediately. They had to leave so soon that my father didn't have time to put on his shoes," said his daughter, Nancy J. Eisner of Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.

She said the family was transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where her father was forced to stand at attention for hours and saw a mentally ill man beaten to death by Nazis. "He remembered the camp was surrounded by an electric fence, and he witnessed people who could no longer take it hurl themselves against it and die."

The family -- which had sponsors outside Germany -- was allowed to leave Buchenwald, and after spending time in England, Mr. Eisner arrived by ship in New York City on New Year's Eve in 1939. He rode a train to Baltimore to meet relatives who had sponsored his family, and was joined by his parents and siblings in 1940.

Mr. Eisner, who had been educated in German schools, was 19 then and found work in the advertising department of the old Baltimore News-Post delivering proofs by streetcar to advertisers. He attended the Johns Hopkins University's old night school, McCoy College.

He was drafted into the Army in 1942, and -- because he was fluent in German -- served briefly with the Office of Strategic Services. He was discharged from the Signal Corps in 1946.

In the late 1940s, he joined the production department of S. A. Levyne Co., a Baltimore advertising company, which he purchased in 1963 to launch what was initially named Eisner & Associates.

He was succeeded as president in 1979 by his son, Steve C. Eisner, but stayed on as chairman for several years until retirement.

"He still loved to swing through the office and feel the pulse of what we were doing. Until his last days, he was interested in the campaign we were developing," said his son, who lives in Roland Park.

Mr. Eisner had served on the boards of Associated Jewish Charities, Park School, and the Johns Hopkins Community Outreach Tutorial Program. He was also a former president of the Suburban Club. He was a former member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

In recent years, he had been involved in preparation of Lives Lost, Lives Found, an exhibit that recently opened at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and traces the stream of German Jewish refugees who arrived in Baltimore during World War II. He was the exhibit's fund-raising chairman and arranged pro bono promotion of the event.

"When he heard about the exhibition, he called me and said, `You better hurry up and interview me because I'm not going to be around forever, you know,'" said Anita Kassof, associate director of the museum. "He led me to a lot of other refugees, and I think it meant a lot to him to have his story be told about fleeing his home, coming to this country and starting a new life."

"I have done what I hope a great many other people would do -- try to repay with whatever talents and other means the debt that I owed to his society," Mr. Eisner wrote in the exhibit's catalog.

"Sometimes I ride around town feeling, `My God, I could have so easily been one who perished,' and here I am leading a reasonably comfortable life, surrounded by loving family, surrounded by very, very good friends, and I am a very fortunate guy."

Services will be held at noon today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

Survivors, in addition to his two children, include his wife of 61 years, the former Harriet Sauber; and three grandchildren.

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