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Denis Adam
Born Dieter Frederick Adam
(1924-02-01)1 February 1924
Berlin, Germany
Died 17 October 2018(2018-10-17) (aged 94)
Wellington, New Zealand
Nationality German-New Zealander
Known for Air force pilot, businessman, philanthropy
Spouse(s) Verna Finlayson (m. 1953–2018; his death)
Awards OBE, CNZM.
Military career
Allegiance New Zealand
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1944–1946
Unit No. 183 Squadron
Battles/wars World War II

Denis Adam, OBE (born Dieter Frederick Adam; 1 February 1924 – 17 October 2018)[1] was a New Zealand businessman and patron of the arts. Born in Berlin, he relocated to England with his Jewish family at a young age soon after the Nazis came to power, and together with his brother Ken Adam was one of only three German-born pilots to serve in the British Royal Air Force during the Second World War. After the end of the war he immigrated to New Zealand where he established himself as a successful insurance broker and arts patron.

Early life and education[edit | edit source]

Denis Adam was born in Berlin to a upper-middle-class secular Jewish family, the youngest child of Lilli (née Saalfeld) and Fritz Adam, a former Prussian cavalry officer who had served with the Zieten Hussars.[2] Fritz had been awarded the Iron Cross Second Class and the Iron Cross First Class for his service in the First World War.[3]

Fritz co-owned a well-known high-fashion clothing and sporting goods store with his three brothers called S. Adam (Berlin, Leipziger Straße/Friedrichstraße).[4][5] The company had been established in 1863 by Saul Adam. Denis had three older siblings, Peter, Loni, Klaus Hugo Adam (5 February 1921 – 10 March 2016).[6][7] The family lived an almost idyllic, privileged existence until the Nazi Party came to power.[4]

England[edit | edit source]

While attending the College Francis, Denis at the age of nine had a fight with a playground bully wearing a Hitler Youth uniform, who was older and bigger than him. This fight and the increasing discrimination against Jews convinced Denis's parents to send him and Klaus to Craigend Park boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland.[8] Upon arrival his brother Klaus anglicised his name to Kenneth and eventually Ken. Their oldest brother Peter was at the time studying law at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France and decided to move to England and complete his studies there.

The rest of the Adam family stayed in Germany as Denis's father felt that the Nazi's were only a temporary aberration and they would wait it out. Things however continued to deteriorate with Jewish stores being boycotted and targeted for attacks in April 1933.

During the summer of 1933 Max Reich a senior employee of the family business and then Fritz Adam was arrested. Reich was the member of the SS and leader of the business's Nazi cell. Reich was eventually released and Fitz Adam was released and put under house arrest for three days.[1][5] Inquiries determined that a former employee who had been dismissed for dishonesty had accursed the two men of unfair dismissal and conspiring to maintain undeclared funds in Switzerland. It took two weeks to disprove both allegations and no charges were laid against either men.[9] Now reluctantly coming the conclusion that Jews had no future in Germany, Fritz, Lilli and Loni as well as some of Denis's aunts and uncles, fled to England in the summer of 1934. They eventually settled in the Hampstead area of London the following year.

After a year as a boarder Denis left Edinburgh and came to London to live with his family.[10] Once in London he began attending St Paul's School as a day boy.[11] Of the extended family that remained in Germany six uncles and aunts of Adam were killed in the Nazi concentration camps.[1] The family were declared refugees on their arrival to England and identified as "friendly aliens" with the exception of Denis who was too young to be classified. The family arrived in England with nothing other than some gold coins his mother smuggled out.[12] His mother who had never previously worked in her life used the little money they had to establish and run a boarding house. His father struggled with his change in status and starting over in a new country. His father started an import-export business selling gloves[5] but his health deteriorated and he died in 1936 when he was 56 years old and Denis was just 11.[1] After leaving school Denis obtained a loan from the Jewish Education Aid Society and studied accountancy for a year before obtaining a job in a small insurance broker called Leroi Flesch & Co.[13]

Second World War[edit | edit source]

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 the government declared that all those of Austrian or German nationality over the age of 16 who hadn't been screened should be interned. Denis had been too young to be screened when he had arrived in the country and as a result soon after his 16th birthday was arrested and spent a month incarcerated on the Isle of Man.[1] Due to the efforts of his mother and brothers he was released after four weeks.[14] When he turned 17 Denis volunteered with his mother's permission to join the RAF. He wanted to be pilot and had the option to either immediately commencing as ground crew with the option of transferring to pilot training when he turned reached the minimum age for flying duties of 18¼ years. As his brother Ken advised him that it would be difficult to transfer from ground crew to pilot training he opted to stay home on leave until he reached the required age.[15] During this time he completed his accountancy studies but didn't get a degree as he needed another years study. In 1942 Adam was sent to Rhodesia for air training.[16] Here he learned to fly Tiger Moth biplanes and Harvards. Once he got his wings he was stationed to Port Tufic in Egypt and then to Augusta in Sicily before being posted to England. Once in England after refresher training at Worchester he went to an Advanced Flying Training School (AFTS) then to a Operational Training Unit (OTU) to learn to fly Spitfires and then to a Conversion Unit where he learn to fly Hawker Typhoon before being posted to Holland in 1944 to No. 183 Squadron, No. 123 Wing. His brother Ken had been serving in No. 609 Squadron of the same wing since October 1943 used an old Kings Regulation to request that Denis be assigned to the same wing. There were four squadrons in the wing, 164, 183 198 and 609.[17]

Together with his brother, he was one of three German-born pilots to serve in the British Royal Air Force during the Second World War.<[18] The third being Peter Stevens (born Georg Franz Hein).[19] As such, if they had been captured by the Germans, they were liable to execution as a traitor, rather than being treated as a prisoner of war.

Immigration to New Zealand[edit | edit source]

After the end of the war in Europe the squadron was sent to England and was reequipped with Tempest IIs in preparation for its deployment to the Asia theatre of operations.[20] Before this deployment could happen the war ended with Japan ended. As demobilisation of individuals was based upon age and length of service Denis was trained as an instructor before finally being demobbed in October 1946. Upon demobilisation he briefly contemplated a career as a journalist, but his commanding officer advised him against it “Don’t do that. At the end of your career you will have nothing to show for it.”[21] Eventually Denis decided to immigrate to New Zealand as he had some cousins on his father's side in New Zealand who said they could offer him a job in their raincoat factory and he had served with a number of New Zealanders, who made a favourable impression on him. Using his service gratuity he had bought himself the cheapest around the world fare.[1] He arrived via a holiday in America in New Zealand on 21 January 1947 with ₤6 in his pocket and took up his cousins Hans Adam and Greta Roger offer of employment.[22] He indulge his love of flying by joining the Wellington Aero Club where he flew Tiger Moths (until he gave it up when he realised the cost was becoming prohibitive) and later was a foundation member of the Upper Valley Gliding Club.[23] He also became involved in the local Wellington in the art and music scene. At the age of 29 Adam met at the Majestic Cabaret met Verna Finlayson, the couple marrying during a visit to Adam's family in London in 1953.[1]

After several few years working in the raincoat factory during which he reached the position of assistant manager in 1950, Denis decided to branch on his own. He had identified an opportunities in the insurance industry but lacked the necessary capital. For many years the ,members of the Council of Underwriters which had 80% of the New Zealand insurance market had non-completion agreements in place and also agreements with a number of other insurance companies who were not members to keep insurance brokers out of the market. In 1957 this practice changed as a result of efforts by Price Forbes, a major Lloyd's insurance broker which lead to the establishment of the Insurance Brokers Registration Agreement.[24]

To obtain the required capital to establish his own insurance business Adam took advantage of a scheme oil companies were prepared to assist with financing suitable people into ownership of a service station.[25] At the time oil companies were not allowed to directly own their retail outlets. With assistance from the Atlantic Union Oil Company in 1957 he purchased a service station in Petone which had been losing approximately ₤2,000 a year. He quickly discovered that some staff and some customers had been stealing from the business and that the petrol delivery drivers were delivering less than they claimed on the invoice. He put a stop to these practices and within two to three months the business was profitable and eventually the most profitable Atlantic Union service station in the region.[25] At the same time he started a small insurance agency, initially for the FAME insurance Company as a client and later another with the General Accident Fire & Life Assurance Corporation.

By 1959 he had enough business confidence and capital to sell the service station and make the transition from agent to insurance broker. Within two years of entering the insurance industry as an insurance agent Adam was able to rent office space in the Paragon chambers in Lambton Quay in Wellington, and establish himself as an insurance broker under the name Adam & Adam.[26] The second Adam was his older brother Peter who had no connection with the firm but was a director of a merchant bank in England, as well as an underwriter at Lloyds of London, at a time when a London connection gave some commercial respectability.[27] His experience at the service station had led him to anticipate the growth in motor vehicle insurance, which became the foundation of his insurance broking business as well as fire and accident insurance. He was also one of the first to offer professional indemnity insurance in New Zealand. His brokerage provided very successful and he came to dominate the insurance brokerage sector.[21]

Art Collection[edit | edit source]

With the profits from his business Denis and Verna began investing in property. In the 1960s they also began buying original art. Their first piece of New Zealand art was Bush Scene by John Snadden whose work they had admired when it was hanging in a Willis St coffee bar.[27] Soon works by Don Binney, Mervyn Williams and Colin McCahon followed, along with other artists. By 1975, their collection had grown so large that they established the Adam Foundation to consolidate the ownership of their growing collection. Gradually the foundation's activities extended to support arts in general with a focus on emerging New Zealand artists. By 2002 the foundation's art collection was valued at between NZ$1 million and NZ$2 million.[27]

Philanthropy[edit | edit source]

Denis and Verna became with time major contributors to the Wellington and New Zealand arts scene. Their biggest donation was that of NZ$1 million in 1998 to Victoria University to assist in the building of what became the Adam Art Gallery.[28] Other notable contributions were to the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington, the Adam Foundation Prize for Creative Writing, the Adam Portraiture Award and Exhibition, the Adam Chamber Music Festival, the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, the Adam Auditorium at City Gallery Wellington, and the Adam International Cello Competition.[28]

The Adams also funded Playmarket's Adam Playreading series at Wellington's Downstage Theatre as well as funding one-off events and an extensive number of individuals. In 2017, the Adam Foundation made a substantial gift towards a new centre of musical, cultural and educational excellence being planned for Wellington's Civic Square. In gratitude the new auditorium will be named the Adam Auditorium.

Death[edit | edit source]

Denis Adam died on 17 October 2018 in Wellington, following a long illness.[29]

He and Verna were childless.

Honors[edit | edit source]

In 1993 Denis was awarded the OBE[1] and in 1999 the CNZM[30]

In 2001, Victoria University made Denis an Honorary Doctor of Literature.[31]

In 2006 Denis and Verna Adam were given the inaugural award for Patronage to the Arts by the Arts Foundation.[32]

At the time of his death Denis was Trustee Emeritus of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery.[33]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Adam's story features in "Promised New Zealand - Fleeing Nazi Persecution" by Freya Klier and translated by Jenny Rawlings

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Manson, Bess (October 27, 2018). "Philanthropist Denis Adam believed art 'nurtured the finer instincts of human beings'". Stuff. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/108066431/philanthropist-denis-adam-believed-art-nurtured-the-finer-instincts-of-human-beings. Retrieved October 29, 2018. 
  2. Jonathan, Glancey (October 30, 1999). "The grand illusionist". The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/1999/oct/30/weekend.jonathanglancey. Retrieved October 30, 2018. 
  3. Adam, page 10.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "S. Adam Fashion House". Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin. http://ojl.beuth-hochschule.de/en/sites/272. Retrieved 11 March 2016. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Karras, Steven (November 13, 2013). "Sir Ken Adam on Designing James Bond Sets and Working With Kubrick". https://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-karras/sir-ken-adam-james-bond_b_2117173.html. Retrieved October 31, 2018. 
  6. Harrod, Horatia (28 September 2008). "Ken Adam: the man who drew the Cold War". https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/3561380/Ken-Adam-the-man-who-drew-the-Cold-War.html. 
  7. Jewish Telegraph: "THE GREATEST EVER JEWISH FILMS Oy Oy Seven! retrieved February 26, 2017
  8. Adam, pages 17, 18 and 23.
  9. Adam, page 20.
  10. Adam, page 23.
  11. Adam, pages 23 and 24.
  12. Adam, page 21.
  13. Adam, page 25.
  14. Adam, page 28.
  15. Adam, page 29.
  16. Adam, page 31.
  17. Adam, page 34.
  18. "Ken Adam: The Man With The Midas Touch". The Economist. March 11, 2016. https://www.economist.com/prospero/2016/03/11/ken-adam-the-man-with-the-midas-touch. Retrieved October 29, 2018. 
  19. Florence, Elinor (April 23, 2014). "The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin". Elinor Florence. http://elinorflorence.com/blog/jewish-pilot. Retrieved October 29, 2018. 
  20. Adam, page 42.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Denis Adam, Insurance Tycoon, Philanthropist, RAF Pilot". The Manufacturers Success Connection. October 18, 2018. https://www.mscnewswire.co.nz/component/k2/item/18299-denis-adam-insurance-tycoon-philanthropist-raf-pilot.html. Retrieved October 28, 2018. 
  22. Adam, pages 51, 67.
  23. Adam, page 53.
  24. Adam, page 68.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Adam, pages 69 and 70.
  26. Adam, page 71.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Hewitson, Michele (February 17, 2002). "Denis Adam announces new art prize". New Zealand Herald. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=939751. Retrieved November 12, 2018. 
  28. 28.0 28.1 Manson, Bess (October 18, 2018). "Godfather of the arts Denis Adam changed cultural landscape". Stuff. https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/culture/107940881/Godfather-of-the-arts-Denis-Adam-changed-cultural-landscape?rm=m. Retrieved October 28, 2018. 
  29. "Denis Adam: Death Notice". Dominion Post. October 18, 2018. http://deaths.dompost.co.nz/obituaries/dominion-post-nz/obituary.aspx?n=denis-adam&pid=190499885&fhid=12778. Retrieved October 28, 2018. 
  30. "New Year Honours List 2000". The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. December 31, 1999. https://dpmc.govt.nz/publications/new-year-honours-list-2000. Retrieved October 30, 2018. 
  31. Bowden, Simon (October 24, 2018). "Denis Adam: a powerful force for the arts". https://www.thewellingtonapp.co.nz/news/denis-adam-a-powerful-force-for-the-arts/. Retrieved October 30, 2018. 
  32. "Chris Finlayson pays tribute to philanthropist Denis Adam". November 8, 2018. https://www.radionz.co.nz/concert/programmes/upbeat/audio/2018670365/chris-finlayson-pays-tribute-to-philanthropist-denis-adam. Retrieved November 12, 2018. 
  33. "About New Zealand Portrait Gallery". New Zealand Portrait Gallery. https://nzportraitgallery.org.nz/about-us/about-new-zealand-portrait-gallery. Retrieved October 24, 2018. 

References[edit | edit source]

  • Adam, Denis (1996). Profile of a New Zealander: The Autobiography of Denis Adam. Wellington: Astra Publishing. ISBN 0-473-03742-4. 

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Freya, Klier (2009). Promised New Zealand - Fleeing Nazi Persecution. Dunedin: Otago University Press. ISBN 978 1 877372 76 6. 

External links[edit | edit source]

  • Denis Adam Radio interview from 6 December 2009 with Denis Adam about his life.
  • Denis Adam Radio interview from 17 December 2009 with Denis Adam about his early life.

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