Heritage? – I’ll take it ‘as is’

Seweryn Aszkenazy, a Polish-Jewish businessman who has spent most of his life in the United States, has been accusing Polish Jews of fraud in the Polish media for the last several years. One of the journalists investigating the finances of Poland’s Jewish communities is Nissan Tzur. According to the financial reports of the Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, an organization headed by Aszkenazy, it has transferred at least $9,000 to Tzur during the last couple of years.

The Heritage and Revival Foundation (Fundacja Dziedzictwo i Odrodzenie) was entered into the National Court Register in 2003. The Foundation’s seat is in Męćmierz in the Lublin Province. Zenon Stanisław Madzelan is the chairman, while Tomasz Pietrasiewicz acts as his deputy. Pietrasiewicz is the director of the Grodzka Gate — NN Threater Center in Lublin and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta in 2008. A well known activist and organizer of cultural activities, he has also contributed to Polish-Jewish dialog. Zenon Madzelan is the head of the Borzechów commune in the Lublin Province. He has also been engaged in matters connected with Jewish culture and heritage. When I ask Pietrasiewicz for information about the foundation, he sends me to Madzelan. So does Seweryn Aszkenazy. Madzelan informs me that Seweryn Aszkenazy is the founder and major benefactor of the foundation, which does not conduct economic activities. Madzelan also explains that the foundation is managed voluntarily by him, acting as the chairman, and by the deputy chairman Tomasz Pietrasiewicz.

The first resolution passed by the Foundation begins with the following words: “I, Seweryn Aszkenazy, […] the founder of the Heritage and Revival Foundation seated in Kazimierz Dolny 24-210, at 21 Męćmierz Street, hereby declare the statutes of the Foundation […].” The section “Objectives and Rules of Operation” states that its objectives include the “management and administration of real estate owned by Jewish Communities andcooperation […] with Jewish Communities within the scope of Jewish property restitution.” Why does a small foundation from Kazimierz Dolny want to manage real estate and participate in Jewish property restitution? “The Foundation has not dealt with Jewish property restitution,” stresses Zenon Madzelan. “In 2004 it tried to obtain the synagogue in Kazimierz Dolny together with a plot from the Jewish Community of Warsaw, in order to fulfill its statutory objectives as fully as possible. The attempt, however, met with the Community’s ungrounded refusal to cooperate within that scope.

Aszkenazy became a member of the Jewish Community in 2000. He purportedly approached the Jewish Community authorities with a proposition to extend a loan for launching and conducting a restitution process. The proposal was turned down and Aszkenazy decided to get involved in the activities of the Beit Warszawa Foundation.

“Is it true that you proposed a loan to the Jewish Community for a restitution process?” I ask Aszkenazy.

“No, it is not. Though it is true that the Jewish Community Board asked me for a loan, which I was willing to extend to it,” claims Aszkenazy.

The current deputy chairman of the Jewish Community, Andrzej Zozula, remembers speaking with Aszkenazy about restitution. “We talked about various things, including the Act governing restitution and that we were unable to launch that process mostly due to insufficient funds.”

A proposal was made to extend an interest-free loan in the amount of $200,000. Purportedly, Aszkenazy submitted a draft of the contract. “According to the draft he submitted, Aszkenazy was to extend an interest-free loan to the Jewish Community in the amount of $200,000 for a period of six months. The rights to claims to real estate in various localities were to be the collateral. If the Community could not repay the loan in time, the interest rate was to be three percent a month. We did not agree to that and that was how the matter was concluded,” says Zozula.

On January 6, 1991, the Los Angeles Times published an article about a hotel owner, who was having difficulties paying $700,000 to the city of Los Angeles for overdue tax payments [link]. The businessman’s name was Severyn Ashkenazy (the American transliteration of Aszkenazy’s name and surname). The clerks were afraid that he would declare bankruptcy. According to the Los Angeles Times, the large sum of money that Ashkenazy owed West Hollywood represented hotel occupancy taxes levied on the seven hotels he ran in that city. The clerks were considering whether to press changes against Ashkenazy if he failed to pay the due sum. The financial problems of Ashkenazy Enterprises Inc. had come to light several months earlier. According to the Los Angeles Times, several checks made out by the company bounced, while others were not accepted due to lack of funds. The newspaper revealed that these were not the first financial difficulties of Ashkenazy. He filed for bankruptcy in 1986 but managed to sell his company to creditors from Illinois. “It seems to me that he [Ashkenazy] doesn’t manage his affairs very well,” said West Hollywood mayor John Heilman. “It becomes a problem when he has to pay money out.”

“Is the information provided in this article true? Have you paid the $700,000 in back taxes?” I asked Seweryn Aszkenazy.

“Yes, I paid the due sum a long time ago,” he answered.

The companies in which Severyn Ashkenazy has been involved and whose activities have been suspended are [link]: Ashkenazy Development Corporation (1965), Ashkenazy Property Management Corporation (1969), The Ashkenazy Ranch, Inc. (1970), Ashkenazy Enterprises, Inc. (1973), Le Parc Cafe, Inc. (1979), West Side Supply Co. (1979), Variety Car Rental Co. (1983), Asa Hotels Ii, Inc. (1984), Moorpark Ranch & Milling Inc. (1985), and Bevsyc Corporation (1985). The only company liquidated so far is L’ermitage International, Inc. (1996). The only American companies in which Aszkenazy is involved and are still active are the Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland (2003) and La Cienega Associates 1, a California Limited Partnership. The latter is a limited liability partnership registered in 1984. Aside from Severyn Ashkenazy, Arnold Ashkenazy and Asa Hotels, Inc. are involved in its operations.

“The authorities of which companies, corporations, associations, and foundations are you a member of?” I try to find out from Aszkenazy.

“I am not a public person and this information is private,” he cuts me off.

During a press conference organized on October 30, 2013, by the Beit Warszawa Foundation journalists received materials which included a brief biography of Seweryn Aszkenazy. It said that he was the founder and former chairman of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, a company offering its customers several hundred of the best small hotels in the world located in seventy countries.

I ask Aszkenazy, “Why did the materials provided to journalists during the conference on October 30 state that you were the founder and former chairman of Small Luxury Hotels of the World?”

“Because it is true,” he answers laconically.

This is incorrect information,” claims Mallory Miller from the marketing department of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. “Mr. Paul Kerr founded SLH and continues to act as CEO to this day.”

Journalists at the conference were also informed that Aszkenazy had been named Person of the Year by World ORT – Educating for Life, the largest Jewish educational organization in the world.

“Why did the materials provided to journalists during the conference on October 30 include the information that you were named the Person of the Year by World ORT – Educating for Life?” I next ask the Beit Warszawa Foundation leader.

“Because it is true,” he answers.

World ORT, whose main administrative offices are in London, is the largest nongovernmental organization dealing with Jewish education and vocational training. Tens of thousands of people in Israel, Russia, Argentina, and many other countries take part in its activities. ORT was established 130 years ago, but it has never established any award, and certainly not one for the Person of the Year.

“He emigrated to the United States in 1957. He studied at UCLA, where he graduated from a postgraduate degree program,” we read in his brief biography. “I studied history of art and literature at UCLA. I really wanted to get a Ph.D. and I attended to all the formalities except for the defense of my doctoral thesis,” said Aszkenazy in an interview given toDziennik Wschodni in 2011 [link].

“Why did the materials provided to the journalists during the conference on October 30 state that you graduated from a postgraduate degree program at UCLA?”

“Because it is true,” Seweryn Aszkenazy informs me.

What does the university say? “According to our records, he completed a B.A. in French in 1959 and went on to study French at the graduate level from 1959–1962. He did not, however, complete graduate-level studies,” clarified Rebecca Kendall of UCLA.

According to Aszkenazy’s short biography, he was a former member of the board of United Savings and Loan. A company by a similar name appears in his life story but in a slightly different context. In February 1986, the Los Angeles Times wrote about Ashkenazy Enterprises, which ran several hotels in the vicinity of Los Angeles and was in a very difficult financial situation [link]. It filed for bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure by one of its lenders. According to the American Bankruptcy Code, Aszkenazy’s company could continue to function while it  drafted a reorganization plan enabling the company to get square with its creditors. One of the creditors was Southern California Savings & Loan. According to theLos Angeles Times, Ashkenazy Enterprises owed it $8.5 million. During a telephone conversation with the newspaper, Aszkenazy claimed that he needed only 30 more days to sell one of his hotels and pay back the loan. SCS&L, however, was impatient, particularly since it had its own difficulties with solvency.

Aszkenazy is the chairman of the Beit Warszawa Foundation established in 2009. The deputy chairman is Irina Renata Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. The supervisory organ is the Foundation’s Council, which consists of Irv Hepner, Steve Hitter, and Barbara Yaroslavsky. But it is not the only organization registered at 113 Wiertnicza Street in Warsaw. The Beit Warsaw Jewish Cultural Association was registered there in 2002. Its chairman is Michael Levi, while his deputies are Irina Renata Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg and Bożena Małgorzata Łubińska. 113 Wiertnicza Street is also the seat of CMC Creative Management Concepts Ltd., which has been in liquidation since 2002. The partners are Stefan Aszkenazy’s sons: Adrian David Ashkenazy and Stefan Abraham Ashkenazy. The activities of the company include: extra-curricular forms of education, the production of films and videos, entertainment, market research and public opinion polling, the publication and retail sale of books, newspapers and printed material.

The September issue of Forbes magazine included the article “Kadisz za milion dolarów” [Kaddish for a million bucks] by Wojciech Surmacz and Nissan Tzur. Surmacz had been aForbes reporter until not long ago. Before that he worked in Puls Biznesu and Newsweek. Tzur is a correspondent of the Israeli media and teaches International Communications at the Department of Political Science of Rzeszów University. In their article Surmacz and Tzur accused the authorities of the Jewish Community and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland of mismanagement and reaping personal profits from the process of the restitution of prewar Jewish community property. “Today Seweryn Aszkenazy, a Polish Jew who miraculously survived the Holocaust, is publishing his own ‘J’accuse’ on the pages of our magazine” Eryk Stankunowicz, the first deputy of Forbeseditor-in-chief, wrote at the time in the magazine. “Aszkenazy tried to interest the ministries and the media in his knowledge of corruption in the Jewish communities, but nobody took him seriously. At first, we did not trust him either.”

In his article Surmacz wrote not only about financial issues, but also about the matter of the origins of the people associated with the Jewish Community. “Szadaj was perhaps the only true Polish Jew in that milieu,” wrote the Forbes journalist. “There is but a handful of true Jews in that closed enclave of Jewish organizations’ directors.” The same issue of the magazine also included Aszkenazy’s article “Kim są nasi przywódcy?” [Who are our leaders?], focusing on a discussion of the origin and “Jewishness” of members of the Jewish community in Poland. “He converted to Judaism and he grew fat thanks to the generosity of his new God […],” “often seen at Holy Mass on Sunday,” “a zealous Catholic,” “a Jewess by choice,” were some of Aszkenazy’s observations.

In November Forbes published a long correction regarding about a dozen of the accusations put forward in the original article which turned out to be false. Major Jewish newspapers, such as The Times of Israel, The Jewish Daily Forward, and The Jerusalem Postwrote about Forbes’ slip-up. Nissan Tzur is a correspondent of The Jerusalem Post. According to unofficial information, after the newspaper published an article regarding theForbes correction Tzur wanted to publish his own text in The Jerusalem Post in which he upheld the accusations against the representatives of the Jewish community in Poland but the editorial staff declined its publication.

This was not the first article in which Tzur wrote about people with whom Seweryn Aszkenazy is in conflict. In May 2011 Tzur published an article titled “Pamięć na sprzedaż” [Memory for sale] in Maariv (an Isreali newspaper). In his text he put forward accusations similar to those which appeared in the September 2013 Polish edition ofForbes. According to tax reports of the Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland [link] $4,000 were transferred to Nissan Tzur’s account in 2011. The organization headed by Aszkenazy paid Tzur “for assistance in various religious and cultural projects in Cracow.”

In 2010 an article critical of rabbi Aaron Katz, a former Beit Warszawa collaborator, was published on http://rabbiaaronkatz.com/. The article’s author is Nissan Tzur. In 2010 the journalist also received $4,000 from the Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, while a year earlier the organization paid him $1,000. New financial reports of this organization should soon be made available in the database from I have quoted.

Nissan Tzur has refused to say whether he has received any money from Aszkenazy or organizations connected with him. He received our questions regarding this issue on February 25. On March 5 he asked where this article would be published even though he had received that information at the beginning of our correspondence. He has not yet responded to the questions (as of March 10).

In March 1990 the Los Angeles Times published another article mentioning Aszkenazy [link]. The LAPD was conducting an investigation regarding its Deputy Chief, Glenn A. Levant, who allegedly dispatched a team of elite narcotics detectives to investigate burglaries at a hotel owned by Azhkenazy.  The detectives spent two days staking out Le Mondrian hotel in West Hollywood. According to the newspaper, Aszkenazy employed Levant’s brother-in-law, Richard Chase. Two years earlier Chase arranged a deal between one of Aszkenazy’s companies and the LAPD to rent cars for use by detectives. According to the Los Angeles Times, Aszkenazy had business ties with Levant’s wife, whom he helped to set up a company offering services to hotels. He was also a board member of a non-profit organization which collected money for the anti-narcotics school program directed by Levant.

“I have been friends with the Levant family since 1976,” Aszkenazy told me. “After the investigation, which Captain Levant initiated himself, it turned out that the article had been commissioned by opponents of Captain Levant. Captain Levant retired with honors, ending his long and outstanding career in the police. The LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates then asked him to become the director of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, which he devised and which thanks to him became the biggest international anti-narcotics school program. The journalists who wrote that mean and unjust article in the Los Angeles Times, which you mentioned, never made a brilliant journalistic career. You have certainly seen similar cases.”

In 2013 Nissan Tzur and Wojciech Surmacz, the authors of “Kadisz za milion dolarów,” were nominated for the Grand Press award for authors of the best press materials published in Poland. In January 2014 they were both awarded by the Association of Polish Journalists (Stowarzyszenie Dziennikarzy Polskich) for their text.

Katarzyna Markusz