Tony Placzek had a tremendous desire to live life to the fullest while experiencing and savoring every moment, even as he pressed on in his fight against leukemia. He died peacefully at home on July 24 at the age of 83, with his wife, Elena, by his side.
Tony was born in London shortly after his father, Fritz, and mother, Edith, escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1938 on the brink of Nazi occupation and World War II. Before Tony was born, his father returned to Czechoslovakia in a last-ditch effort to bring his own parents out of harm’s way. Fritz was unable to achieve this goal, making Tony the last surviving member of the Brno Placzeks. Edith raised Tony alone in England, moving frequently throughout the war. They emigrated to the United States when Tony was 10, settling in Berkeley to live closer to his aunt and uncle.
In Berkeley, Tony developed an early taste for adventure and entrepreneurship. He was certainly a handful for Edith. He convinced his mother he could get an old Dodge business coupe at the age of 13 as a project to fix up – she had her hands full when he got it running the next day. He made rum snow cones in the Berkeley High parking lot (this ultimately got him sent to Robert Louis Stevenson to finish high school). He served in the US Army and was stationed in Germany at the height of the Cold War, returning to the U.S. to marry Cecilia McGuire and complete his bachelor’s degree from Colorado College.
Tony loved his long career in commercial real estate financing and investing, working first for Coldwell Banker and then starting his own firm Pacific Eastern Real Estate. He distinguished himself with his gregarious nature and his enthusiasm for dealmaking, finding investors for neighborhood retail and other commercial projects, riding the waves of Bay Area commercial real estate. Enthusiasm, creativity and making connections were the pillars of his “create the opportunity” and “go for it” personal mantras.
Tony’s insatiable desire for adventure was unique. An avid skier, he shared his love of the mountains with his entire family, building a family cabin with Edith and Celie and lots of help from “friend work parties.” Tony and Celie took their children on many adventures —rafting down the Grand Canyon, camping through France and Spain, and sailing in Greece. He loved pretty much anything that went “fast,” owning and crashing more boats and cars than we can count.
It wasn’t until his mid-40s that Tony came to learn of the fate of the Placzek family in Europe from his cousin. His father died just six days after the Nazis took full control of Czechoslovakia and three days after Tony was born in 1939. His grandparents refused to leave the country, believing the anti-Semitism of the times would wane. Tony lost both his grandparents, Alfred and Marianne, to the camps, as well as dozens of other relatives.
This family lore spurred in Tony a deep desire to uncover his family’s lost history, leading to a quest that would last the rest of his life. He embarked on a series of trips to the newly formed Czech Republic after the fall of communism and learned the deeper history of his family. He learned of his great-grandfather, Baruch Placzek, who was the first rabbi to lead his community in the industrial city of Brno, and a citizen scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and conducted experiments with Gregor Mendel. Tony’s uncle George Placzek left Czechoslovakia by the beginning of the 1930s to pursue research in nuclear physics, working on the discovery of nuclear fission with Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner and leading the Canadian research for the Manhattan Project. Tony relished the connections he made with Czech historians, scientists and artists, who all sought to recover a lost age of science and industry, as well as a painful part of Czech history.
In his final two decades, he and his second wife Elena loved traveling. They explored Russia, Georgia and Japan as well as the warm beaches in Greece, Montenegro and Hawaii. Leave it to Tony to race the clock in 2020 with a fabulous trip that almost got them stuck in New Zealand for the duration of the pandemic.
Tony was driven his whole life by an insatiable curiosity and a genuine love of people, even complete strangers. He was notorious for striking up conversations with anyone, anywhere. His early years were characterized by war, bombs and insecurity, but his mother Edith provided him with the support he needed to thrive. Tony talked about family and home with warmth and passion. After losing his Brno Placzek family and home to tragedy, he realized how much these rooted his own family going forward. He forged a life of substance, compassion, friendships, gratitude, and integrity, of which his forebears would be proud and which his loved ones now celebrate and remember with sadness and joy.
He is survived by his wife, Elena; his daughter, Mary Ann Scheuer; his sons, Eric and Alex Placzek; 16 grandchildren, Katy, Molly, and Emily (by Mary Ann and Ed Scheuer), Jessica, Zachary, Isaac, Luke, Anna, Isabelle, Elizabeth, Victoria, Naomi and Titus (by Eric and Nicole Placzek), and Addie, Grant and Finn (by Alex and Gretchen Placzek); and one great-grandchild, Elli (by Zachary and Jessie Placzek).