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David Azrieli’s foundation donated an estimated $100-million since its founding in 1989, underwriting initiatives in education, architecture and design, scientific and medical research, and the arts. (ISRAEL HADARI)
David Azrieli’s foundation donated an estimated $100-million since its founding in 1989, underwriting initiatives in education, architecture and design, scientific and medical research, and the arts. (ISRAEL HADARI)


Mall Man from Montreal David Azrieli brought American-style shopping to Israel Add to ...

At just 17, Mr. Azrieli settled for a while in the Soviet-occupied city of Bialystok, where he completed high school. Further flights took him to the Uzbek republic where, in Bukhara in late 1942, he joined the Polish Armed Forces in the East, known as the Anders Army, whose plans were to move from Iran through Iraq and on to the teen’s longed-for destination, Palestine.

But in the fog of war, the plans went awry, and Mr. Azrieli decided to make a dash for the Holy Land himself. From Iran, he reached Iraq with his brother Adam, who had travel orders for Baghdad. Disguised as an Arab villager, Mr. Azrieli bribed an official and rode the train to the Iraqi capital. Lacking a passport, he dodged guards by disembarking at stops then scampering back aboard into another car.

Once in Baghdad, he hooked up with two members of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary group (one was the future eye-patched general, Moshe Dayan). “'Suddenly, Dayan burst through the door, muddy and exhausted,” Mr. Azrieli later wrote in his memoirs, fittingly titled One Step Ahead. “He gave specific instructions on when and where to meet, and we left the hotel.'”

They arranged for the young man to be smuggled into British Mandate Palestine amid a shipment of arms hidden in coffins. After a five-day bus ride on bone-rattling roads, Mr. Azrieli finally arrived in late 1942. Years later, he discovered that of his family, only he and one brother had survived the Holocaust.

He also conceded how recklessly he had behaved, driven by his desire to reach Palestine and get away from the Nazis. “Desertion, in the middle of a war, would surely have led to my execution,” he would write. “I was foolish and young.”

He studied architecture at the Israel Institute of Technology but quit to fight in Israel’s War of Independence, serving in the storied Seventh Armored Brigade during the Battle for Jerusalem. After the war, he decamped for South Africa, where he taught Hebrew, then to England, New York and finally, Montreal, where he arrived in 1954 alone to work as an architect’s assistant. He would earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montreal while teaching Hebrew.

Pooling $3,000 in savings by 1957, he bought 10 lots of land to build four modest duplexes in a suburb, then sold all 10 lots. He never looked back. Mr. Azrieli founded Canpro Investments Ltd. in the early 1960s, focusing on developing high-rise residential buildings and building the Hotel des Artistes, which housed musicians and other artists who performed at Expo 67, according to the family charitable foundation’s online tribute.

But what still rankles many Montrealers was Mr. Azrieli’s role in the demolition of a landmark on Sherbrooke Street. In 1973, he purchased the historic Van Horne Mansion from the descendants of 19th-century railway magnate William Cornelius Van Horne, and planned to demolish it. There was public outcry, protests and even a credible offer from another developer to buy the century-old greystone.

Emboldened by the seeming indifference of government officials to the fate of the anglophone landmark, Mr. Azrieli went ahead and bulldozed the building, in the dead of night to avert protests. Montrealers awoke to a pile of rubble that eventually became the site of a concrete office tower and later a Sofitel hotel.

The episode sparked the creation of the heritage preservation group Save Montreal (now Héritage Montréal).

Though the mansion was razed more than 40 years ago, memories are long; a recent letter to the editor in the Montreal Gazette recalled two sardonic words hand-painted over the cornerstone plaque on the building that replaced the proud mansion: “Thanks, Dave.”

In an interview, Mr. Azrieli defended his actions, saying the mansion had not been classified as a heritage property and that the application to demolish it had been approved by the appropriate authorities.

“Everybody knows that I only purchased the land and not the building,” he said. “The heirs of Van Horne actually demolished it. The condition that I bought the land was the building should be torn down.”

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