The last professional winemaker of the legendary Lessner family, Ivan Lessner lives in Canada and is still active. He and his artist partner came to Tapolca, South West of Hungary with a donation of a special work — a 3,000-piece glass mosaic installation — to the city and the followers of Tapolca’s Jewish heritage. The official inauguration of the work of art will take place at the Jewish cemetery in the beggining of September.
For a long time I wanted to pay tribute to the memory of my family in some form, now Covid has given us the opportunity. My partner, glass artist Darlene Mace completed this work in two years after half a year of planning and studies. A thorough, meticulous work was born. She made the 3,000 pieces on 14 glass panels in her Canadian workshop, and then we were able to deliver them to Hungary by plane
— recalled Ivan Lessner.
For the man who was born in Budapest in 1951 and emigrated to Vienna with his family in 1956, his great-grandfather — Sámuel Lessner, one of the most famous figures of the wine merchant family from Tapolca from the Rhineland in Germany — was a true role model. “His tombstone was designed by the famous artist, Béni Ferenczy. I also liked the idea of sending a high-level reminder to posterity by creating something special” said Ivan Lessner, who has lived in Canada for more than 40 years and is professionally engaged in winemaking.
When I was a child, I could spend a lot of time during the summer holidays in Tapolca, where my mother’s parents looked after us. And even though it was not the Lessner-line, they proudly mentioned the family’s former dominant role in the city and the entire region.
— continued the reference to the past Ivan, who added: “In the second half of the 1960s, we already lived in Germany, but fortunately we had the opportunity to return to Hungary often, so the bond always remained alive.”
Ivan Lessner obtained his degree in winemaking, brewing and brandy-making at the University of Geisenheim on the Rhine river — what an irony of life that the family originally immigrated to Hungary from the city of Düren, not too far from there, 200 years earlier.
They were among the wealthiest families in the city of Tapolca, they were big tax payers who provided work for many hundreds of people. Not only did they create an international trade network, but they also built a cellar system under the city center, which 100-120 years ago was one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in the region. In addition to all this, as synagogue builders, they proudly nurtured their Jewish roots and generously supported the city’s citizens through their various charitable foundations.
Ivan first became interested in wine in Austria, when he got the opportunity to work in his uncle’s, Péter Lessner’s wine shop in Vienna as a schoolboy and then as a teenager. Even in the time of Sámuel Lessner – the golden age of the family in the 1880s and 1890s – the company had branches in London and Trieste. Their last international bastion was the business in Vienna, where Ivan could soak up the basics.
There is wine in the Lessner blood, there is no no question about it! My uncle Péter told me a lot about the family, and through him I was lucky enough to visit great Austrian, German and French wine regions when I was young. It might have seemed natural that, with so much knowledge, all this was also a consideration during my educational path.
— recalls Ivan, who with several decades of winemaking experience, when asked whether his family’s origin and success in the international market gave him something extra, answered that Hungary is a wonderful country, with a complex history not only for foreigners, but perhaps it is not clear to the Hungarians either.
“I was fully aware of my family’s past, but I never bragged about it during my work, because the momentary work result was always what mattered to the partners. This has always been characteristic of the capitalist world system.” – he tells.
On the other hand, he was always happy to see that the wine industry in Hungary respects the Lessners. Neither their first-rate and exemplary courage international trade network, nor what they did against phylloxera — a devastating pathogen — has been forgotten, emphasized Ivan Lessner, who, as the last active member of the wine-dinasty, wants the family’s memory to live on for a long time.
“I have a cousin, János Buzás, who is also a Lessner descendant. He lives in Kötcse, on the south side of Lake Balaton. He also works as a hobby winemaker. I love him very much, we are in good relations, when we come, we meet. However, he never did the family craft as professionally as I did.”
Since I have no descendants, I would like to be able to end the family’s winemaking traditions in a dignified way, if that time should come. Perhaps this awareness was part of the fact that we can realize this glass installation with family and community cooperation.
— noted Ivan Lessner, who added: according to the plans, at the end of summer, around mid September, during an inauguration ceremony combined with a commemoration, this renewed space will be officially handed over in the Jewish cemetery in Tapolca.
The ceremonial building -- also known as a house of mourning or a funeral home -- houses not only the huge mosaic monument, but also prayer house benches, chairs and other synagogue furniture recently acquired from Veszprém -- as a donation from the local Jewish community.
The decorative world of Darlene Mace's mosaic work is particularly noteworthy: it includes many Hungarian, Israeli, Jewish and old folk motifs, and embraces the splendor of the Lessner family and the entire Tapolca Jewry for several centuries.
The monument is another example of what we have already reported on several times: the many stages of the historical preservation activities of an enthusiastic and professional team, called Tapolcai Értékmegőrző Egyesület (Tapolca Valuables Preservation Association) which aimes further strengthening the Jewish pilgrimage tourism offer of the region, and at the same time enrich the city's cultural, heritage protection and identity strengthening character.