July 05, 2012

Itsu Kaszirer

My father-in-law of 24 years, Itsu Kaszirer, died on the second of Tammuz at the age of 90, in Antwerp. He was a remarkable man in many ways. Nowadays the tendency is to create myths after people die, but he was a myth in his own lifetime. He grew up in the Romanian badlands of the Carpathians, known both for its bandits and its fiercely strict Chassidim. In his neck of the woods, the two dominant Chassidic sects were Viznitz and Satmar. His family was strongly Viznitz. He frequented the court of Rebbe Chaim Meir and his family. You could say that he was the best of buddies, on first name terms, with the eldest son, Rebbe Moishele, who was four years older and who became the Viznitzer Rebbe in 1972. Significantly, he also died this year, in March.

Itsu’s story is typical of the post war European Jewish world. During it he was brutalized in Hungarian work camps. But his resilience and strength helped him get through it all, at a cost. He had no time for reflection or psychology, just the passion and lust for the life he nearly lost. He married Suri, who had survived the war by living and working with nuns. They settled in Satu Mare, and Itsu began to rebuild the family wine business. They had two children (later another two).

When the communists took over Romania they decided to flee. It was a highly risky venture. They travelled secretly and separately and finally met up again in the Czech Republic. Itsu was caught as an alien and jailed. Only Suri’s gutsy intervention saved them. Finally they made their way as stateless refugees to Brussels. They moved to Antwerp, where they started at the bottom in the diamond trade.

Itsu was a hard-working, brilliant wheeler-dealer with a head for figures and a talent for salesmanship. He had charm and warmth and people took to him. With Suri’s help, he succeeded in building Kaszirer Diamonds into one of the biggest diamond companies in Antwerp. His coup in breaking into the Russian polished market gave him an edge. As his business flourished, he opened offices in Israel, America, South Africa, and the Philippines, and he used his leverage to invest in real estate around the world.

What was really remarkable about him was his charity. I have never met anyone who was so willing to help whoever who came to him, without strings attached. But he devoted himself above all else to funding Viznitz institutions, in their center in Bnei Brak and wherever Viznitzer Chassidim needed somewhere to pray.

His Chasidism was of its time. It was an anachronism and in some ways inconsistent. He struggled to cope with the temptations of modernity while still holding firmly to his religion--even as he seemed unaware of his inconsistencies. Although in his youth he wore the full gear, like many of his generation, after the war he westernized his appearance. When he built his first Viznitz Synagogue in Antwerp, it was peopled by like-minded refugees from Chasidic communities who were now living in a very different world and dressed and looked accordingly. Over time the Chassidic world grew less compromising, more separatist; the next generation wanted their own synagogues for those who now dressed and thought differently. This did not stop Itsu from funding them, too.

He was not an easy man to do business with. He was driven, suspicious, insensitive, and did not suffer fools gladly. He kept on driving himself and pushing others; like many successful businessmen, he sailed very close to the wind, probing and testing for weakness and opportunity for profit. Yet he lacked a command of business administration and management, which was to prove his downfall as he over expanded. In the heady atmosphere of the diamond industry, banks fell over themselves to lend. And Itsu was happy to borrow vast sums.

But the other factor in the decline of the empire was his relationship with his son, Mendy, who was not as personable as his father, though every bit as ambitious. The two initially formed an impressive double act. Slowly Mendy began to bridle, go his own way, and take bigger risks. They were partners who began to undermine each other. Miscalculations both in diamonds and real estate, including a disastrous attempt to play De Beers against the Russians, sapped the viability of the businesses. Slowly the profit centers disappeared and the relationship between father and son deteriorated. While Suri was alive she was able to mediate. But her death opened the way for the collapse of the whole edifice.

I was a minor player and observer of the collapse of the empire. Egos, ambitions, the wrong associates and partners all contributed. But what upset me more than anything else was the way people, religious people at that, whom one would expect better of, who had benefitted from Itsu’s largesse, friendship, and support, completely turned their backs on him when he lost his money. Some even tried to take the synagogue he built in Antwerp away from him. He became even more erratic, and from a powerful, handsome, dynamic man, he declined.

The memories of him will remain as vivid as he was. His delight in Viznitz, his abundant charity and benevolence and the way he overindulged, to a fault, many of those he cared most about. The story is not a unique one. Wherever you look in the business world you come across stories of men who overreached themselves, who were brought down by family conflict, and who saw everything they had built destroyed. But nothing can take away from this man, the charity he gave, the good he did, and the souls and families he saved.

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