Family Confidential featured in Sydney Morning Herald
November 13-14, 2010
Sad secret of a famous son
Australia's richest man talks to Adele Ferguson about family tragedy, building an empire and his beloved football.
WHEN Frank Lowy was l3 in wartime in Hungary, his father left the family home one day and never came back. The boy who would become Australia's richest man waited and waited, but his father had vanished.
As weeks turned into months, and months years, and Lowy set out on a path to make a fortune and build Westfield, the world's biggest shopping centre empire, his father's disappearance haunted him. In some way, it also inspired him to make the most of a life that had been spared when those of so many millions had been lost.
It would take 50 years and a chance meeting on the other side of the world, between Frank's son Peter and an Auschwitz survivor, before he finally learnt what happened that day in March 1944, just after Nazi Germany invaded Hungary.
All Lowy knew was his father had gone to buy train tickets to try to get his family to a safer place. Everything after that was blank: a mystery that had hungover him all his life.
The stranger who Peter Lowy met in Los Angeles in 1991 knew the answer to the question his father had never asked aloud. Having been seized at the station and put on a train to Auschwitz, Lowy's father, Hugo Lowy, had refused an order from Nazi soldiers to surrender his prayer shawl and prayer books - tallit and tefillum -so they could be burned. The soldiers beat him and left him to die by the side of the train wagon in Auschwitz. He never made it inside the camp.
For most of his life Lowy could not talk about his childhood ordeal in Hungary, not even to family or friends.
It took until this year-almost 70 years after his father's disappearance-for Lowy to finally find some peace and hold a memorial service for him. "So many times I wanted to go to Auschwitz but I couldn't take up the courage to go there," he says. "so I was afraid of one major thing, that maybe that I wouldn’t be able to emit him and other people there, so i couldn’t go. Many survivors go, but I couldn't quite cross that bridge until some later time the idea of the wagon came to me."
He is referring to a railway wagon identical to the one that took his father and thousands ofothers to the Nazi death camps. A wagon he has traced and restored in memory of all those who died.
A relaxed and mellowed Lowy, sitting in his office at Westfield Tower in Sydney, tells that finding out what happened to his father has given him a peace that eluded him all those years.
"This event has brought to me the capacity he had in him. That knowledge I have makes me very proud to know him," he says. Unlike his fabulously wealthy son, Hugo Lowy was never a commercial success. In life, he was a humble travelling salesman who enjoyed gambling on Sundays. But in the way he met death, he stood up for his principles, his religion and his people. Years on, and millions of thoughts later, Lowy believes that in quietly defying the Nazis, his father stood apart.
"He sacrificed his life for the ideal that he had," he says. "I now think he may become a symbol for the millions of victims that were there, to stand up to the tyranny and horrific crimes." It took Lowy almost 20 years after he learned how his father died to find a way to commemorate him. That reveals something, perhaps, of the complexity of the man. "Finding out what happened took considerable time to digest," he says. "What do you do about it when you find out about your father's fate? Do you accept it? You obviously have closure. You know whatyour father was and what he did, do you just accept it? Do you keep it and it is yours and your family's? Only many years later when I was contemplating a visit to Auschwitz that a memorial or a commemoration of him came into focus."
Lowy's son Steven says of all the ideas his father has had, the idea of creating a memorial to Hugo is one of the most important.
Lowy was concerned at the publicity it would create, the unwanted attention, so he consulted a few prominent people in Israel to ask them how to handle the commemoration. "We decided together not to have any politicians, not to make it political but make it a family affair for family and friends. So people from my family in Australia, London, Czechoslovakia, they all came to commemorate it," he says.
In a rare interview, in conjunction with an ABC documentary covering the memorial to his father to be screened on Monday, Lowy has done what few businessmen do: reveal innermost feelings, his fears, hopes, highs and lows.
It is the story of a man whose success is intricately bound up with his horrific past in Hungary during World War II: a life described by his friend Rupert Murdoch as a scriptwriter's dream. In fact, Murdoch told a crowd paying tribute to Lowy last year that the Hollywood arm of his media empire could help make it a box office hit.
Beginning as sad and often horrifying, it becomes a dynastic saga involving romance, money, massive success, betrayal-and, of course, disputes with the Tax Office. For now he is happy to simply tell the story with no embellishment.
"The memories made me who I am," he says. "Most of us who had this experience have been marked. Never to leave us. I was fortunate as I didn't go to a concentration camp. There are people who spent four or five years in these concentration camps dehumanised."
Lowy isn't sure humankind has learnt from evil that happened in living memory. "Our job is to make sure it is not forgotten," he says.
And that is his message, his reason for talking about his past.
At 80 he has become the epitome of the Australian dream. Migrating to Australia from Palestine in 1952, penniless but with the excitement of being reunited with his mother, Ilona, he has become the country's most successful migrant, Australia's richest man with a net wealth of more than $5 billion.
He enjoys all the trappings of the rich and powerful, with a luxury yacht, a jet and expensive art. A former director of the Reserve Bank, he has more lately been lobbying hard to bring the biggest show on earth to Australia: the World Cup.
His influence spans politics, national borders, philanthropy and business. He has attracted his fair share of controversies over the years, including disputes with the Tax Office in the 1990s and again, recently, over tax matters here and in the US. There have been allegations ofWestfield bullying tenants and buying political influence with big donations to the two major parties.
It is hard to imagine that the Lowy of today - immaculately dressed, talking about art and the Berlin Philharmonic coming to Sydney on Tuesday-started out making sandwiches before opening a small delicatessen with another Hungarian refugee, John Saunders, in the booming migrant suburb of Blacktown.
Their first development, a shopping centre in Blacktown, was opened in 1958 and Westfield Holdings Ltd was listed on the stock exchange in 1960. The long relationship between Saunders and Lowy ended in 1986 when Saunders sold much of his 20 per cent stake and resigned as a director. Saunders could see his role diminishing as a result of Lowy's ambitions for his three sons within Westfield, and he believed it was time to bail out.
Lowy's success and money have attracted university experts and entrepreneurial hopefuls wanting to study who he is and how he did it. He is charming on the outside, but those who know him well say he can be as tough as old boots with a mind like a steel trap. Until now, his strategy has been deceptively simple and no secret: work hard, be curious and have the gu1s to take risks. Bur for those who know him best, the key to his driven personality is what happened long ago in wartime Budapest.
That is where he lost his father, most members of his mother's family and his youth. It is also where he
learnt how to survive, to act rationally and to keep a lid on his emotions.
According to the biography Frank Lowy: Pushing the limits by Jill Margo he learnt his business acumen on the streets of Hungary, living off his wits to elude the Gestapo and Hungarian anti-Semitic gangs. At one stage he had to masquerade as an illegitimate child as he and his mother moved into the servants quarters at the house of a high ranking railway official. Lowy told Margo in the book: "I was always listening to what was said to make sure we could survive. 1 don't remember having any friends.There was continuous bad news and fear. My brother risked his life to bring us food. We all risked our lives for each other."
This heightened awareness of his surroundings, the need to be on his guard and work hard, proved to be a formidable combination for survival in the business world. "I work all the time, whatever I do I do it, and I don't necessarily look at it as work. You could say the Auschwitz project was work, or the Lowy Institute is work, or Westfield is work, or the football is work. It is life. In the morning I wake up and until I go to sleep, I work. I go to bed and want to switch off but the brain doesn't switch off." While his years of living dangerously as a teenager made him determined to always be in control, Lowy insists that money does not drive him.' Money is misunderstood," he says. "The fact is if you want to be successful, the money will follow you. If you are a doctor, something else will follow you. Jf you are successful, there is an accompaniment. lf your goal is just to make money, you won't succeed. Money is a commodity to use, not to be dictated by." Indeed, at 80, Lowy says he is keenly aware that his power and wealth should not be abused. When he decided to find a railway wagon to commemorate his father's death, a wagon similar to those that transported Jewish prisoners to the death camps, he wanted to stay in the background, and not rely on his influence to get things done. "I wanted it to happen- but didn't want it to happen because I can throw money around, so to speak."
That decision was difficult because finding a wagon was not easy, even for Australia's richest man. The more he thought and talked about it, the more he believed it would be a commemoration to all Jews, with his father getting a special with his father getting a special mention.
The search began in Hungary and ended in northern Germany, where a wagon was located in the backyard of a doctor, believed to be an Aryan enthusiast. A team of experts authenticated the wagon, others restored it and the wagon was delivered to Auschwitz, where it was presented as a symbol to commemorate all Jews who had died, with a special mention of Hugo Lowy, the man who bad died standing for his principles-while trying to get a ticket to freedom for his family.
Keeping a lower public profile has crept into other aspects of Lowy·s life. Unlike his 60th and70th birthdays, which prompted big parties, his 80th birthday was a low-key affair with his family and grandchildren in the Whitsunday Islands. "No party. I didn't want a party. I have had enough parties. Parties are very nice but they say lots of things about you and I wasn't interested," he says.
Lowy has trouble thinking of anyone who inspires him now. "I'm 80 years old and I am supposed to
know a lot, so it's not easy to look up, so to speak. In a funny way people look to me; the atmosphere is a bit rarefied." know him. He sacrificed his life for the ideal he had. On a personal level, his mother
did and still does inspire him. She taught him to value family above all else, because hers was taken away. "The pain she had, I have, too. Everything comes back to that. That is my experience. You live by your experience. It is not all bad, difficult times makes things sweet. This year has been bittersweet. Besides finally "burying'' his father, turning 80 and celebrating 50th anniversary of his Westfield empire, the Lowys are embroiled in an investigation by the Australian Tax Office and its United States Equivalent
It follows accusations from a US Senate committee in 2008 that they were using a Liechtenstein bank and a sophisticated trust structure to hide $US68 million from tax authorities. In a statement issued at the time the Lowys denied wrongdoing and said they had been co-operating with the investigations.
The investigations have attracted negative publicity and taken away some of Lowy's control. "I don't feel we have done anything wrong. We took advice every step of the way whatever we did, and it will be sorted out. There is no timeline; I wish there was. I have no control. I like to be in control."
It is the desire to be in control that explains, perhaps, why he remains executive chairman of Westfield. While two of his three sons work in the business, when there are any big deals, such as the decision to spin off part of the business into a separate listed entirely last week, Lowy was there to explain it to investors.
He doesn't see it as control, more about not being idle. Lowy is also waiting for the verdict on who will host the World Cup in 2022. He says he will be in Zurich on December 2 waiting to hear "Australia" announced. If Australia wins, it will be a bigger deal than hosting the Olympics, he says.
Winning would be his crowning lory. A football tragic since his father introduced him to the game when he was five, he has breathed life into a sport that was moribund in this country.
But for Lowy, the World Cup bid is one more challenge in a life of challenges. "For every mountain there is another one. The big question is if you reach the top of the mountain, what then?Whatdo you do then? I suppose you die."
But, so far, there is no mountaintop he climbs thinking "This is it." There have always been others ahead. "I am 80 now. I hope to climb a few more," he says.