Businessman and philanthropist David Azrieli, a Holocaust survivor who designed the iconic Azrieli Towers and owned the group that manages some of Israel’s largest malls, died on Wednesday at the age of 92 in Canada.
Azrieli, originally Azrylewicz, was born to a Jewish family in the town of Maków, in Poland, in 1922. His father, Raphael, was a tailor who owned a successful garment business. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Azrieli, who was then 17, left home and embarked on a three-year journey to Palestine via Soviet Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Iraq.
When the war ended, the young Azrieli, then in Palestine, found out that his parents and younger brother and sister, who had remained in Poland, had perished in the Holocaust.
The self-made billionaire’s experiences during the war years and his first years in Israel were documented by his daughter Danna in a book, “One Step Ahead,” which was published in 1999. In it, Danna tells of her father’s enlistment in the Polish Anders’ Army, his escape from Iran to Iraq disguised as an Arab deaf-mute, and his journey from Baghdad to what was then Palestine. Aided by Moshe Dayan and Enzo Sereni, Azrieli was spirited into Palestine in 1942 on a bus that smuggled weapons hidden in coffins.
He then settled on Kibbutz Maor Haim in northeastern Israel. His first visit to an Israeli city was to Afula, where he tasted chocolate for the first time.
In time, Azrieli began to study architecture at the Technion, but quit his studies to take up arms during the 1948 War of Independence. While he would not attain his degree until the 1990s, Azrieli would go on to become one of Israel’s most prominent architects, entrepreneurs and philanthropists.
He was awarded an honorary PhD from Tel Aviv University in January at a ceremony attended by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But in the preceding decades, he successfully made his mark as a master architect.
Among his more famous projects are the geometrically-shaped Azrieli Towers, famous landmarks that dominate the Tel Aviv skyline, and the Malha Mall in Jerusalem, which for a time was considered the largest mall in the Middle East.
In 1954, Azrieli moved to Canada. From there, he built up a business that spanned three countries — Israel, the United States and Canada — and made him billions.
Today, the Azrieli Group, which is owned by the Azrieli family, manages the Azrieli chain of shopping malls, including Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall, the Malha Mall and Modiin’s Azrieli Mall, and 10 other commercial centers. Azrieli’s daughter Danna is expected to take his place as head of the group.
Azrieli is survived by his wife, Stephanie, and four children.