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Eulogy for Marc Besen, delivered by Mark Leibler

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Senior partner Mark Leibler AC delivered a personal tribute for visionary business leader and philanthropist, Marc Besen AC, who sadly passed away earlier this week.

Being asked to deliver a eulogy is a great honour that comes with great responsibility.

Both the honour and the responsibility of eulogising a man who achieved as much, touched as many and lived as long as Marc Besen are profound beyond words.

But as we gather to comfort Marc’s family - his adored children Naomi, Carol, Debbie and Daniel and their partners, his grandchildren and great grandchildren - I will try to reflect the feeling of loss and gratitude and admiration that is so palpable here in this synagogue, and reflected in the tributes flowing for Marc from well beyond this synagogue.

While it’s the story of one man, Marc’s story and the rich tapestry of his legacy carry deep meaning for everyone here today, and also for our nation and humanity as a whole.

Because Marc’s story is about the strength of the human spirit; our capacity to triumph over adversity; and about having a vision and the determination, the persistence and the self-belief to make it a reality.

More than anything, it’s a story of love and loyalty and compassion, demonstrating that a hard head and a soft heart are the perfect combination for a successful life that genuinely counts for something.

Marc never doubted that the foundation for his extraordinary success in life was set in his early years.

Former Premier Jeff Kennett expressed it very simply some years ago in a column he wrote about Marc for the Herald-Sun newspaper in Melbourne.

Kennett surmised that the defining feature of how much Marc and other refugees had achieved appeared to be “the fact of dispossession, whether it is from freedom, family, country or opportunity, and their unmatched desire to succeed.”

Born on 19 December 1923 to Simon and Gusta Besen in Czernowitz, a Romanian city where his family had established a large timber yard, Marc grew up speaking German.

In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, the western part of the country was occupied by the Russians. But two years later Germany hit back and the province in which the Besen family lived was re-occupied by German-supporting Romania.

More than a quarter of the population of Czernowitz was Jewish, and it wasn’t long before thousands of Jews were deported to a camp in the Ukraine where living conditions were abhorrent.

Marc and his family decided to leave at all costs and, in 1942, they purchased a small, rickety fishing boat they named “Viitorul”, meaning “the Future”. I heard Marc say more than once that the family had known it would take a miracle for them to make it to their chosen destination – Palestine via the Black Sea, the Agean and the Mediterranean.

Almost as miraculous as that would have been, the family made it as far as the neutral territory of Turkey before their engine failed. They waded ashore – their only remaining belongings, the soaking clothes they wore on their backs.

In early 1943, the Besens were granted passage to Israel, where Marc lived with his family for four years before heading to Australia on a student visa.

After trying to combine study with the imperative to earn a living, Marc chose to focus on the latter and established an import business.

He started supplying hosiery to a small business called Sussan, run by Faye and Samuel Gandel and, in 1950, married their daughter, Eva Gandel.

While Marc always felt that the foundation for his extraordinarily rich life was established in his early years, he knew that it was realised through his deep union with Eva.

In Eva, Marc found his touchstone, the heart of their close family and a partner in all their important undertakings. Her loss, in August 2021, was a terrible blow to Marc, who had cared for her with such devotion as her health deteriorated. So many aspects of their interests, passions and accomplishments had been shared.

A year after they first married, Marc had been invited to join the family business fulltime.

That same year, he was able to bring his parents to Australia, where they spent the rest of their lives surrounded by loving family, and all the many other fruits of their courage in escaping Czernowitz.

During the ensuing years, as Sussan grew and prospered, so too did the Besen family. In 1952, Marc and Eva’s first child, Naomi, was born, followed by Carol, Debbie and son Daniel.

In the Herald-Sun column I mentioned earlier, Jeff Kennett also ventured to explain why refugees like Marc had such a strong will to succeed.

He described it as “an urge to create opportunities for themselves and their families that were lost, or simply didn’t exist, in their country of origin.”

Beyond that, Kennett recognised in these individuals another shared urge to “create something of lasting value” for the community more broadly.

Which is why Marc Besen is known and admired, not just as a brilliant businessman, but for applying his business acumen to causes that he and Eva viewed as being important to our humanity.

Marc and his beloved Eva exemplified the spirit of Tikun Olam, the drive to make the world a better place.

Almost three decades ago (1995), Marc said in an interview: “The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, but in what direction we are moving.” Wealth was never accumulated for its own sake, but for how it could be used to facilitate the greater good.

For his visionary and extraordinary contribution to the nation, Marc was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1988, in recognition of his service to the community and commerce.

On Australia Day 2015, he was named a Companion of the Order of Australia.

The citation associated with the more recent award - the highest honour in the land accorded to an individual for service to the community - better reflected the breadth of Marc’s contribution, across social welfare, health, education and the arts.

In his lifetime, three generations of Australians have engaged with institutions and events that bear the Besen name – school buildings, medical and community facilities, and across the visual and performing Arts.

And that impact will surely grow as current and future generations of the Besen family maintain the legacy of giving, lovingly instilled in them by Marc and Eva from a young age.

For the people here today, who have been personally touched by Marc and Eva’s visionary approach to philanthropy - which would cover most, if not all of us in one way or another - it’s important to ascribe this aspect of his life the significance it deserves.

But for economy of time, I’ll focus on two passions that seem to me to have given Marc the greatest joy and fulfilment.

Marc traced his and Eva’s love of art back to their honeymoon in Europe, where they drove a staggering 11 thousand miles, visiting museums and galleries in every city and town they passed.

In a rare interview they gave in 2015, Marc told Art Collector magazine that neither of them had grown up with art around them and, together, they had discovered how much they loved it.

“If painters express themselves in such a manner,” he said “we felt it would be beautiful to be involved with more paintings, but in our own country.”

Over the next half century, they collected art they loved, produced by artists who have shaped the development of modern art in this country - Smart, Whitely, Olsen, Gascoigne, Drysdale, to name just a few.

With the establishment of TarraWarra Museum of Art in 2000, Australia’s first privately funded public museum, they gifted much of it to the nation.

Marc told the reporter from Art Collector that he and Eva would quietly visit the museum at weekends to observe visitors sharing their “enchantment of art”.

TarraWarra is the pinnacle of Marc and Eva’s unparalleled contribution to the visual and performing arts in Australia, a contribution that saw Marc serve as Trustee for both the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian National Gallery, and Deputy Chair of the National Museum of Australia.

He was also heavily involved with the Victorian State Opera and, as a member of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, became the most effective ambassador for Australian art this country has ever produced.

I said earlier that I would limit myself to two philanthropic focal points through which Marc drew on his own life experience to create something precious and enduring.

Having spoken of the Arts, I turn to Marc’s unwavering, interconnected commitment to Jewish education and to Israel.

He understood the infinite value of education and believed that the best education for Jewish children was a Jewish education.

This belief was not borne of orthodoxy, but from his deep appreciation and love of tradition. And his involvement with Mt Scopus College since its inception in the late 1940s - not only financial, but so much more in terms of time, effort, intellect and inspiration - has enriched the lives of thousands of Jewish students.

When I think of Marc Besen and Jewish values there is a particular passage in Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, which springs immediately to mind. It says:

Pirkei Avot

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”

As a true Zionist, Marc believed that the success and wellbeing of Jews throughout the world depended on the success and wellbeing of Israel. Having visited him in recent weeks, I can tell you that he was acutely aware of the current war and the abomination on October 7 that caused it, and that his primal love and support of Israel was as strong as ever.

It was enormously rewarding for Marc that he managed to combine his passion for education and for Israel by supporting Tel Aviv University and also the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He received honorary doctorates from both universities in recognition of this enlightened patronage.

Marc and Eva made regular trips to Israel and were among the greatest supporters of the United Israel Appeal over the decades. Year after year, he and Eva would host the most splendid marquee at the UIA Major Donors Dinner, modelling the level of generosity Marc expected of his guests.

Marc was one of a generation of Jewish migrants who made Australia undeniably better in so many ways.

He was the longest surviving representative of a generation of self-made Australian business titans.

Blessed with a long life, Marc gave us the opportunity to observe a long life well lived at each stage.

I had the privilege of knowing Marc for more than 50 of his 100 years. We became great friends and shared many life experiences.

He was simultaneously a client and a mentor – I was the beneficiary of his rare wisdom, which spanned business, community and personal matters.

Put simply, I enjoyed his company and will miss him greatly.

He seemed unaffected by his immense success and what it had afforded him in life. He remained natural, straightforward and genuine.

Through all the years I knew him, he remained motivated by the same inclination to do what he believed was right. And the combination of his steely sharp mind and unwavering morality was disarming.

My admiration for Marc and how he lived his long life is boundless.

In particular, I admire how he combined his fantastic success as a businessman and philanthropist with an equally happy and successful family life.

Marc navigated the tough decisions, the temptations and the risks of success with rare wisdom and sensitivity, with his moral compass firmly trained on what was best for his family and each individual member.

Marc loved to encourage and nurture young people and he simply adored his own children. He encouraged them to be the best they could be, and took enormous pride in watching Naomi, Carol, Debbie and Daniel each become business and community leaders, and undeniably good people, in their own right.

They became equal partners in Marc and Eva’s charitable, philanthropic and artistic pursuits, planning and realising their individual and shared dreams for Australia and humanity as a family.

I recall Rosanna and I having dinner with Eva and Marc on his 60th birthday and hearing him say that with luck and G-d’s will, he’d have another good 10 years left in him. Well, he - and we - were blessed with just on another 40 years.

Judaism teaches us to look forward to each additional year with anticipation, excitement, and the determination to make the most of every opportunity at every stage of life.

As one of the speakers at Marc’s 95th birthday gathering, I said that I could think of no one who lived by this philosophy more fully and genuinely than he did. And we are all the richer for it.

Today our hearts reach out to the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and their partners in whom Marc and Eva live on.

So too will our love for this man who made the world a better place.

Extracts of Marc's eulogy were published in The Age/SMH, Herald Sun, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review.

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