Vale Marc Besen: A life of success and generosity made in adversity

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Business legend and noted philanthropist Marc Besen died on Tuesday in Melbourne. Below is an extract of a eulogy delivered on Wednesday by lawyer Mark Leibler.

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.

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

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.

In his wife Eva, Marc found a partner for all of life’s important undertakings.

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”.

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 what is now 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 started an import business and began 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 important undertakings. Her loss, in August 2021, was a terrible blow to Marc. So many aspects of their interests, passions and accomplishments had been shared.

A year after they married, Mark was invited to join the family business full-time. 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.

Marc 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, 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.

On Australia Day in 2015, he was named a Companion of the Order of Australia. The citation reflected the breadth of Marc’s contribution across social welfare, health, education and the arts.

Then prime minister John Howard (right) with artist John Olsen at the opening of the Tarrawarra Museum of Art – founded by Marc and Eva Besen.Credit:

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.

Two passions 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 11,000 miles, visiting museums and galleries in every city and town they passed.

In 2015, Marc told Art Collector magazine that neither of them had grown up with art around them and that 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”.

Marc pictured in 1992 as part of the Moet & Chandon touring exhibition selection panel.Credit:

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

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

Marc also had an 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 Mount 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: “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.

Marc and Eva made regular trips to Israel and were among the greatest supporters of the United Israel Appeal over the decades.

Marc was one of a generation of Jewish migrants who made Australia undeniably better in so many ways. 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. He was simultaneously a client and a mentor. I was the beneficiary of his rare wisdom, which spanned business, community and personal matters.

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.

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.

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.

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