SYDNEY, Australia – Two weeks ago he was in Poland, fighting back tears as he gave the keynote address at Auschwitz-Birkenau in homage to his father who perished at the gates of the notorious death camp in 1944. Two days ago he was in Hungary, where his father disappeared, watching the grand final of Australia’s premier soccer league on his laptop.
Though seemingly unrelated, these two events are bittersweet bookends in the colossus life of Australia’s Frank Lowy.
Faith and soccer – two code words to unlock the heart of the 82-year-old co-founder of the Westfield shopping mall empire and chairman of Football Federation Australia.
His rags-to-riches fairytale has amassed a $5.3 billion fortune, according to Forbes magazine, after arriving in Australia in 1952 virtually penniless having surviving the Holocaust on the run before fighting in Israel’s War of Independence.
But his business instinct has not compromised his Jewish faith or his faith in soccer – both of which he learned from his father Hugo.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day Lowy told more than 10,000 people – including his wife, sons and one granddaughter – how his father had been beaten to death upon arrival in a cattle wagon because he refused to sacrifice his tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries).
“I never realized that he had strength – the spiritual strength – to take on the brutal guards here in Birkenau. No matter how hard they hit him, he protected the sanctity of his tallit and tefillin,” Lowy said, his voice cracking.
“They could break his body but they could not break his spirit. The tallit and tefillin were part of him, part of his personal relationship with God, and he was ready to die for them. And he did.”
At Auschwitz lies a cattle wagon used by the Nazis and restored by the Lowy family, dedicated to the memory of Hungarian Jews who perished there.
In 2009, at a private ceremony, Lowy placed a blue prayer bag inside the wagon as a symbol of his and his father’s faith. It brought to a close a 50-year search to discover his father’s fate that ended in 1991 when one of his sons had a chance encounter with an unrelated American man called Myer Lowy who had witnessed Hugo’s death.
“This has really, in a sense, defined his entire life,” Lowy’s rabbi, Levi Wolff, told Haaretz this week. “He’s been able to now appreciate the Yiddishkeit that his father lived for and died for.”
Last Friday night was Hugo Lowy’s yahrzeit [the anniversary of his death]. Ordinarily his son would have been in Central Synagogue in Bondi Junction, where he is also known as Pinchas Yonah, said Wolff, who is dubbed “the official rabbi of the Socceroos,” occasionally reciting prayers for the national soccer team.
Faith wasn’t the only legacy Hugo Lowy left his son; he imbued him with a love for the world game as a kid growing up in rural Czechoslovakia. When the family escaped to Budapest in 1942, Frank followed MTK. And in the newborn Jewish state, he supported Hapoel Haifa.
He said it gave him “a sense of belonging” when he first arrived in Australia more than 60 years ago. That quickly transformed into a foothold, which began at Hakoah, a Jewish club founded by immigrants from Vienna.
“It gave him a sense of belonging to a community and provided the opportunity to create some standing within the community,” writes Jill Margo in Lowy’s biography, “Pushing the Limits.”
“When he joined he was raw; he didn’t know how to speak publicly, let alone in English, and didn’t know the formalities of committee organization. At Hakoah he honed these skills.”
By the 1970s Lowy had become a founder of the National Soccer League. But by the 1980s he was dubbed a traitor by some for withdrawing his team amid ethnic-fueled strife that soured the sport. Then the Australian prime minister called in 2003 to ask him to lead the renaissance of the sport. Within a decade he put the Socceroos on the map, gained entry into Asia, and oversaw the rise of the inaugural A-league, culminating in Sunday’s finale in front of a capacity crowd.
Although he failed to bring the 2022 World Cup to Australia for the first time in history – registering just one vote from FIFA executives – that day will come.
And when it does, it will surely have Lowy’s imprint behind it.
His business behemoth is well documented, with over 100 shopping malls across four continents; so too are his few run-ins with authorities, including the American and Australian tax departments as well as in the Bank Leumi affair in which Lowy was embroiled as a close friend of Ehud Olmert. But none of the allegations were proven.
His philanthropic efforts and his contribution to Israel, where he keeps an apartment, may be lesser known – he is the chairman of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and is a longstanding donor to Keren Hayesod, among other charities.
But in Australia, where sport is a national religion, he’s been described this week as “the godfather of soccer.”
It’s a likely legacy that can be traced back to the small town of Filakovo.
“I was five years old, in a small town in Czechoslovakia, and my father took me to a soccer game on a Sunday afternoon,” he recalls in a promotional video for the game. “I remember how excited he was, and so was I. It was like a bug bit me – and it never left me since."