Vale Les Erdi

Farewelling a communal giant

1 February 2013
By Peter Kohn, Australian Jewish News

FOR a patriot of his adopted country, businessman and philanthropist, Dr Les Erdi passed away with fitting symbolism on Australia Day.

Erdi, 91, died peacefully with his wife Eva by his side on January 26, and was laid to rest at Melbourne Chevra Kadisha cemetery in Springvale on Monday.

Tributes flowed in for the post-Shoah immigrant entrepreneur, who embraced Australia and its opportunities.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) president Danny Lamm said: “I had the pleasure of knowing Les Erdi for many years and he was just an absolute mensch. He supported projects I was involved in with the Zionist Council of Victoria, the ECAJ and most recently, in a large way, at the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.

“He was constantly brimming with innovation, always enthusiastic, always optimistic, tremendously committed to the welfare of Israel and a proud Jew.”

Jewish National Fund (JNF) national president Michael Naphtali recounted Erdi’s many JNF involvements, which included support for the rehabilitation of Israel’s Yarkon River and the development of Kadesh Barnea in the Negev. He described Erdi as “intensely Jewish, incredibly generous … perhaps it’s a trait of Holocaust survivors, but I don’t think he was ever in a circumstance he couldn’t handle.”

Erdi became well known as founder of the Mercure Hotel group. His Erdigroup empire began in the 1980s when he and his wife Eva bought property in Melbourne’s Swanston Street.

Erdigroup expanded with the Grand Hotel Melbourne, the Four Points by Sheraton in Geelong and the Urban Hotel Group in the 2000s.

The company was the force behind the “One Billion Trees” project, which plants trees around Australia to combat carbon ­emissions.

Erdi also endorsed “Living Trees”, a collaboration between JNF and Greening Australia to plant trees in threatened regions around the globe.

In June last year, Erdi told The AJN of his financial stake in a joint Australia-Israel research venture, through the Weizmann Institute, to virtually eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels.

He also made major contributions to the Diabetic Institute, Leukaemia Foundation and Melbourne Research at the University of Melbourne.

The Jewish Film Festival, Emmy Monash Home and Elwood shul’s refurbishment have been beneficiaries of Erdi’s philanthropy.

Declared 2011 Senior Australian of the Year for Victoria, Erdi was also recognised with a Centenary Medal in 2001, a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2008 for services to the community, and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at Monash University in 2010.

In his no-nonsense style, Erdi’s biography, chronicling his harrowing experiences during the Holocaust and his new life in Australia, was titled Whatever It Is, This Is What It Is.

Erdi’s plain-spoken realism saw him through the worst of times. Erdi was born in 1921 into a business family in Budapest, and his father died from wounds he sustained in World War I.

The family’s fashion stores were threatened by mismanagement, but Erdi and his brother Emile reversed the decline.

During the Holocaust, Erdi narrowly escaped a Nazi firing squad in occupied Hungary.

With a new start in Australia, he and Eva ran a hostel before entering the fashion industry, becoming a leading manufacturer and retailer.

In 1967, he founded what was described as the world’s first purpose-built apartment hotel, ushering in his ventures in the luxury accommodation industry.

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