In late 1944, some eight months after the Nazis marched through the streets of Budapest, an idea began to flicker in the mind of 13-year-old Pinhas Levy. The way to rescue his family from the Germans and the terrible fate awaiting them, he realized, involved deception. At the time they were hiding under fake identities, but to survive they had to obtain certain documents – and this was virtually impossible.
The Swiss Embassy issued such documents but masses of people swarmed the gates there and precious few managed to enter. But young Levy was resourceful. Instead of waiting in line, he went to a costume store and purchased the uniform of a messenger boy who delivers and collects urgent telegrams. Wearing the unmistakable outfit he made his way into the embassy, and when he said he had an important message to deliver – the ambassador himself received him in his office. Levy left with the lifesaving documents: He, his mother, his two brothers and sister survived.
When you think about it, this story is more than just an anecdote: It embodies the essence of the motivation driving Pinhas Levy – who for many years has been better known as Frank Lowy, an Australian businessman and one of the richest people in the world.
Without a doubt his ingenuity and fierce ambition helped Lowy, who is today 88 years old, become the prototype of a self-made man, which is in itself a gross understatement. Sir Frank Lowy, knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2017, is today the fourth-richest person in Australia, according to Forbes magazine, and is in the very respectable 244th spot among the world’s wealthiest individuals. His fortune, which he built from the ground up in the real estate industry, is estimated at $6.3 billion.
In Australia he is a public figure known not just for his business acumen but also for his philanthropy. He is a local icon who has sponsored Australian sports ventures in general, and soccer in particular. He visited Israel frequently for decades and then, about two years ago, after Lowy sold off most of his business interests, he made aliyah. But during a conversation in the home he shares today in Tel Aviv with his wife Shirley, in a nine-story seaside building that his family built years ago, he looks back and says that "it was not even possible to dream" of what would happen to him when he grew up.
“All I was looking for is to be successful. I had the opportunity with Australia, with what it provided for me economically. I wanted to build a family very strongly because I lost my family when I was 15, 14, and I missed the family unit very much," he explains. "I remember I worked in a [family-owned] Jewish delicatessen. When the shop closed, the mother and father and two kids, a boy and a girl, went home in the car; they were a family unit. I envied it. I wanted it so much, to have that family unit restored. It was burning in my life to do that. And I must say, I succeeded."
Back to the train tracks
Frank Lowy's biography is fascinating, like that of a sort of Jewish Forrest Gump. He was present at many of the important junctures in the history of the 20th century. He saw the rise of the Nazis with his own eyes, immigrated to Palestine and played a part in the founding of Israel, went from being a penniless immigrant to a billionaire in Australia, and was one of the owners of Manhattan's World Trade Center that was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks – which he later helped to rebuild. Indirectly, that is what led to his personal story being revealed to the world.
After his speech at the inauguration of the new trade center, where he spoke about being a Holocaust survivor and about how renewal and return are the ways to battle terrorism – people from the Tribeca Film festival asked to do a documentary about his life. The film, “What Will Become of Us,” had its Israeli debut a few weeks ago at the DocAviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv, and it will soon be broadcast on Hot's Channel 8. At about the same time, Lowy’s biography was published in Hebrew translation by Yedioth Ahronoth Books. “Frank Lowy: Pushing the Limits,” by Australian journalist Jill Margo, originally came out in 2001. In it Margo describes the “inspiring story of the rise and rise” of Lowy, but also the chapter in his life before Australia – his "other" history.
But when Lowy himself describes the suffering of that chapter in his life, it's hard to see it in his face. A short man, wearing a carefully zipped-up black sweat suit, a person who clearly worries about nutrition and keeping in shape, he switches between Hebrew and English and it seems that a half smile is always playing around his mouth to soften recollections of the harsh moments. For example, he mentions the terrible loneliness he suffered when he made aliyah to Israel as a youth, and the wretched poverty that forced him to live in the unfinished houses that he was building as a construction worker, but concludes with: “But I was okay.”
Our interview was held a short time before Lowy traveled to New York for the screening of “What Will Become of Us,” after his staff arranged a private screening of it for me in a room on the sixth floor of the building where he lives. Lowy built this building 20 years ago on the ruins of the offices of the old Israel Land Development Company. He envisioned a place where his entire family – three sons, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren – could stay together in Israel. Today, it seems to be the only private residential property on Hayarkon Street that has an unobstructed view of and access to the sea.
But if as a guest I expected to see a family home, in the lobby I was already confused by Lowy's agitated staff. Where was I and what is this building, I asked – and was answered in Australian accented English: “It’s Mr. Lowy’s residence.” A wood-paneled elevator leads to the floor where the movie was to be screened and where we would hold the interview, interrupted every half hour by an employee asking what the guests would like to eat and drink. The walls and shelves and table in the room are covered with impressive artwork. Surely not the sort of atmosphere in which young Pinhas Levy grew up.
Lowy was born in 1930, the youngest child of Hugo and Ilona, in the town of Filakovo in what is today Slovakia but was then part of Czechoslovakia. His mother had a small shop there. His father, who Lowy’s biographer says lost his money in card games, was a traveling salesman of kitchen equipment. He would leave home on Monday and return on Friday, to the synagogue and the singing of the Sabbath-eve “Lekha Dodi” hymn. Some 250 Jews lived in the town, all of them religious.
"We lived a very modest life," Lowy recalls. "We were not rich at all. There were no luxuries whatsoever, but life was okay, you know. We went to the heder in the morning, school in the afternoon. Occasionally, we went to see a soccer match, we snuck away for something like that. But life was very simple."
In 1942, as the atmosphere worsened and anti-Semitism began to poison their lives, Lowy’s parents decided to leave town. The racial laws had forced his mother to accept a non-Jewish business partner in her store, there were financial and other problems, and life had become a violent nightmare for the family. They moved to Budapest,
Lowy: “Budapest was a totally different world. Even though there was lots of anti-Semitism, [among] everybody in Europe, you didn’t feel it so much. It was a big, big city, a million people. There were a couple hundred thousand Jews, I went to Jewish school and had a wonderful time until 1944 when the Germans occupied Hungary."
Do you remember that day?
“I remember that day. I remember the hour. It was a Sunday afternoon, March 19. I came home, and my mother and father were at the theater. We saw the Germans marching up and down the street. Suddenly Hungary was occupied by the Nazis, by the Germans. And there was a bit of a family gathering [and worries] of ‘What are we going to do now?’ We knew that it was going to be harder than it was before. I was 13 and a half, right after bar mitzvah.
"I just saw the despair on my father’s face, and it made a mark on my life. The next morning, I was told that Father had gone to the railway station to see if the trains were traveling. What he had in mind, I understood, was to leave Budapest and go somewhere in the country.”
Lowy raises his tea cup, pauses and takes a sip before going on. "He went in the morning and then he disappeared, like it swallowed him up." At the time, he continues, the family was living in an apartment. "On the first floor, there was a window just similar to this, just the window. And there was a couch in front of it, and I was kneeling on the couch for days waiting for him to come home."
Four or five days later a man in uniform knocked on the door and brought a letter from his father. It said that he had been taken from the railway station to a concentration camp not far from Budapest, but he was all right and needed a few things. The family kept in touch through letters via this same messenger, whom they paid for his services. Five weeks later his father disappeared again. It was only 40 years later – by accident – that Lowy discovered his fate.
At that time Peter, one of Lowy’s three sons, was on a trip with his family to Palm Springs, California. One morning, when he went to collect the newspaper from the reception desk at his hotel and gave his name – a stranger came up to him. The man, a Jew of about 70, told him that his name was Lowy, too, and asked where his family came from. When Peter told him, the man turned pale and froze. Then, as Frank Lowy tells us now, the man told Peter that he had been on the train to Auschwitz with his grandfather.
This is how Lowy learned that his father was beaten to death with a rifle butt on the tracks at the death camp, when he insisted on holding onto the bag with his tallit and tefillin.
How did you feel when you heard this story?
“Actually, in a way, in all my sadness, I felt very proud: that my father was able to make such a sacrifice of his life for his principles. I finally found out what happened to him. I used to dream about him, but after I discovered it, I didn’t dream anymore. You know, it was kind of a closure. In my dreams about my father, he bent over me and I didn’t know if he was really there or not. I dreamed about him many, many times. The dreams have not returned. So it must have been some kind of closure.
“But then [I thought]: I haven’t been to Auschwitz. I didn’t know how I am to commemorate him. I didn’t know how I would behave when I go to Auschwitz. How will I feel? So I didn’t go. But then, I had the thought to commemorate him, and also the 300,000-400,000 Hungarian Jews. I was looking to buy a wagon [i.e., train car] of same make and the same kind [that had transported my father]. I knew where he was killed. It was on the platform in Auschwitz, in front of the tracks. After searching I approached the Auschwitz authorities with the wagon. It was a lengthy negotiation, but the wagon is there now.”
Do you think you did things during your life, thinking about what your father would have said about them?
“The loss of my father marked my life. I’m 88 years old and I’m still mourning him because it’s such a drama for me. It was just after my bar mitzvah and it was so tragic. The effect on me, I carry it all my life. You know, it’s a continuous part of my life. I know it all the time, but I don’t live it. I mean, I’m getting on with life. So I think that’s a story in itself. Tragic. One of the 6 million stories of the Holocaust."
Alone on the roof
When asked about the key junctures in his life, Lowy mentions the move to Budapest and then, as an older youth, to Mandatory Palestine. World War II had just ended, his father’s fate was still unknown, but the rest of the family was able to reunite. They tried to return to Slovakia but, “there was no place for Jews to be there. So I went to my mother, and told her they were looking for young people to get together, to bring them to Palestine. I [said] I’d like to go, leave Slovakia, and I went. We came to Palestine" – he explains, meaning himself and his older brother; their sister and mother ended up going to Australia sometime later.
Lowy was 15 and a half at the time and recalls being taken with other Jewish youths from Prague to Paris (“I remember I had ice cream. It was summer. It was unbelievable”), to Marseilles and on to the illegal immigrant ship Yagur, heading for Palestine. The ship was supposed to hold 150 passengers but was loaded down with 700. There was no room and not enough food or water, he says, and the journey ended after the young Holocaust survivors had glimpsed Haifa – but were taken to a British internment camp in Cyprus. Lowy spent about three months there before being released along with other prisoners under the age of 16. His older brother remained imprisoned for another two years until he was freed.
Lowy: “When I came here, it was freedom. I left in late 1947, to find work in Haifa. I lived in very, very poor circumstances, but I was okay. I was about 17 then."
In Haifa, he was a construction worker and a plumber. At night, he slept in the rooms and stairwells of unfinished buildings. But a short time later everything changed: “Then a big change came to our life with the United Nations declaration [of the establishment of Israel, in May 1948]. I mean, it was an unbelievable experience. Never forget it. People were dancing in the street; everybody was happy. It’s kind of a celebration that's once in your lifetime.”
At the time, along with friends, he decided to enlist in the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state Haganah underground militia. They were sent to fight in Tiberias; Lowy was wounded but returned to the battlefield after a few days – with a bandage on his head. After Tiberias, he and his friends, also foreign-born, continued to Kibbutz Gesher, where they did guard duty. They were subsequently drafted into a volunteer commando unit, and participated in a number of historical battles around the country, including those at Sejera, up north, and the capture of Rafah in the south.
Later Lowy's request to go to officers training was rejected and he was deeply insulted. He was discharged from the military, broke off contact with his friends, moved to Haifa and lived with his brother in a rented room on the blazing-hot rooftop of a hostel for young men. He worked in construction and then as a clerk in a bank. A short time later he decided to leave the country.
“In a way," he tells me now, "I’ve never left Israel. You know? I left because I was here on my own and my family, my mother particularly – they immigrated to Australia, and I was here with my brother. My family unit got destroyed, and I was longing for my mother very much. And we decided to join the family after being here six years.”
Little by little
Frank Lowy was 21 in January 1952 when he landed in Australia and began a new life there. He worked in a metal factory and later preparing sandwiches at a delicatessen. The owners were a Jewish couple whose son and daughter would join them in the afternoons, working with them and then going home together. The tight-knit family made a huge impression on Lowy and sparked the desire to create his own family – which he did. Not long afterward, at a Hanukkah party, he met Shirley; they married within a short time and 10 months later their oldest son David was born. It was at this time that Lowy became an entrepreneur. Along with a partner named John Saunders, a fellow immigrant, he opened a delicatessen in a developing area of Sydney, which was quickly populated by immigrants.
“We opened a couple of shops and provided them with the continental foods that the immigrants liked. To give you a picture of Sydney in the early 1950s – there were no coffee shops. There were hardly any restaurants. So, the foreigners that came changed the country. It’s unbelievable. The foreigners were really craving continental foods, sausages and all that – cheese, tomatoes. We provided it. We found somebody who was making salami in the city and it became one of our businesses. The real estate activity started: housing for the immigrants. We saw that opportunity and borrowed some money and started to do that too."
In 1958, Lowy and Saunders founded Westfield, which has morphed over the years into a global shopping-center giant. Lowy inaugurated his first center that year, Westfield Plaza in Blacktown, a suburb of Sidney. The company went public two years later and has grown exponentially ever since. According to local media, the phrase “going to Westfield” has become a synonym for “going shopping.”
The company has also built dozens of shopping centers and malls outside of Australia – in New Zealand, the United States and Britain. In the past, Lowy has attributed his success at least in part to the paranoia that is a legacy of his past: a paranoia informed by suspicion, which is responsible for the fact that he sold off many assets before the global financial crisis of 2008 – and suffered less than others in his industry.
About a decade later – and six years after he transferred the management of his business to his sons, Steven and Peter – Westfield was sold to a French company for $16 billion. The sale was the biggest ever in Australia at the time, but for Lowy – who developed a reputation over the years for being an especially hard-nosed businessman – it was more than that: It marked the end of a central part of his life.
In his biography, one of his lawyers describes this centrality well: Lowy is a person, he said, who never, not even during a 14-hour trans-Atlantic flight, spoke about women, theater or entertainment – and at the end of the flight he would hurry to his hotel room to work. That passion is evident only in connection with one other thing in Lowy's life – his family, he says now, adding that he has always preferred to see his sons by his side as managers and heirs.
By comparison, his affairs with his original partner, Saunders, ended on a very bitter note. When Saunders wanted to sell his share in Westfield to Lowy after decades of partnership, Lowy agreed to Saunders’ price – but their relationship went south. One weekend, without his partner’s knowledge, Lowy emptied the management floor – the 24th floor of the Westfield tower – leaving him all alone in his office up there. The conference room and the other employees moved to the 22nd floor, leaving nothing behind but desolation and silence.
Margo, Lowy’s biographer, described that move as being very typical of Lowy: effective, cold, determined. At the same time, she also described family dramas and conflicts that arose when the sons and their wives felt too much intrusion into their own lives. With all that today, after the sale of Westfield, the Lowy family is still a tight-knit unit that carefully manages numerous private investments all over the world.
Alongside these activities, the Lowy family has always been identified with philanthropy. Lowy has established medical research centers, an independent think tank on foreign affairs and, with his wife, a foundation serving the Jewish community. He has also donated generously to soccer in Australia and helped turned the sport into a local source of pride; he served as chairman of the Football Federation Australia and was a member of FIFA’s executive committee.
The media in Israel has rarely reported about Lowy’s investments in the country over the years. There have been items regarding failed attempts to invest in various enterprises, including the IDB conglomerate, but what's more frequently mentioned are Lowy’s ties to senior politicians, including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The local press has been particularly excited by his multi-deck yacht, Ilona, one of the largest and most luxurious in the world, which from time to time has anchored in Israeli territorial waters, and on which Lowy has hosted dignitaries including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Lowy and Olmert’s names were also connected in less happy circumstances: during the investigation opened in 2007 by the Israel Police's national fraud squad, on suspicions that while he was finance minister, Olmert tried to influence the tender for the sale of Bank Leumi to help Lowy win the bid. Ultimately, the state prosecutor decided to close the case and Lowy backed out.
Although he has no known major business investments in Israel, Lowy – who, during an election campaign in Australia in the 1980s, announced that he would not vote for his own party, the Labour Party, because one of its politicians had met with Yasser Arafat and declared his support for the PLO – is known for one main funding activity: He contributes generously to and is a member of the board of directors for the Institute for National Security Policy at Tel Aviv University. Unofficially, the institute is considered to be center-left politically and has in the past called for examining the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal by Israel from parts of the West Bank.
The missing conversation
Now Lowy is here in Tel Aviv, drinking tea and eating a cookie, and trying fight off a bothersome cold. His wife Shirley became ill years ago; for the past five years her mental state has deteriorated and Lowy is caring for her in their home. In the new movie, she is seen sitting at a table with him fussing over her. Shirley’s illness is also the official excuse for making the documentary that recreated his life.
“As her memories fade," her husband says, "I look into myself.”
Nonetheless, before our interview, at a talk moderated by Kobi Meidan after the film was screened at the Cinematheque, when he was asked about what worries him, Lowy spoke about the concept of "home" – in a broader way.
“Democracy in Israel. The attempt by the government to destroy the Supreme Court,” he answers. “For this we fought? For this we established a State of Israel. I think that guarding the Supreme Court, and separating from the Palestinian people should be the most important things we deal with.”
You spoke about your feelings when the State of Israel was born. How do you feel about it now?
"The Israel of those days and the Israel of today cannot be compared. Today we have a country of millions and then it was just a few hundred thousand, with migrants from all over the world, but we have things today that we didn’t have then; there are rich and poor, and there is prosperity. Israel became a regular country with regular citizens who want to fulfill their own interests, in an era of 'me first.' It's normal, but there were years when this was not the case. If you needed help, someone would help you. Today the focus is on the individual, on the narrow interests of the few, and politics reflects this. It’s a very polarized politics.
"I was in Australia for many years. And the system there is a two-party system and the government changes from time to time. The system there is designed to be tough but not difficult like here. The blame there is on bad policy or on poor economic performance, or on certain aspects of life. Here the shouting has a higher pitch. Australia also has some corruption in certain places, but it doesn’t come close to the levels and accusations [relating to] politicians and ministers here.”
What would you like to see? What's the key to a better life here?
"I would like to see an agreement with the Palestinians and a separation from them, and I feel closer to the parties that propose this. The problem here is the politics does not always serve the national interest. But of course when I say it, it's from one side of the political spectrum, and they will say the same from the other side."
There are those in Israel who would say that your opinion on the Palestinians is un-Zionistic and would send you back to Australia.
"Luckily, they don’t have that power. My family was forced out of Slovakia because we were Jewish. They may not want to hear me, but they can’t force me out. There needs to be much more acceptance in the country. Acceptance of religion, and of different streams of Judaism, so that the non-Orthodox are not left out or discriminated against. Hitler didn’t discriminate between Orthodox and secular Jews. Why are Jews doing this? It's high on my agenda and I am taking a large philanthropic role in this topic.
"There is room still to work on a political solution with the Palestinians, and this would have such an enormous impact on the country. Economic and political stability is the best defense against threats. Maybe I am talking about the dream of the mashiach [messiah], but even if we can get to 50 percent of this, our situation will be so much better."