Harry Triguboff’s secret past: the 19-year family secret that he just told the public

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Harry Triguboff is the hard man of Australian property. He is known for his sharp temper and his public battles with everyone from Reserve Bank governors and prime ministers to state politicians, planning bureaucrats and anyone else who gets in the way of his huge apartment construction machine, Meriton.

But there was one moment when the hardened Triguboff gave a small glimpse into the turmoil that he buries deep inside. It was 1994 when Triguboff was aged 61, his wealth and fame as “High Rise Harry” well established. In front of 800 pupils at Sydney’s Moriah College, he took the podium at the first school assembly in the Moshe Triguboff Auditorium, newly built with his money. A small article published in Australian Jewish News captured the scene.

“Standing in Moriah College’s new modern auditorium bearing the name of his father, benefactor Harry Triguboff was almost lost for words,” the article began. “Choking with emotion, he paused several times, saying it was hard for him to speak at all.” The article did not pry into the cause of Triguboff’s tears, and he has never felt the need to publicly explain what happened. Until now.

Here, told for the first time, is the story of the Kafkaesque nightmare inflicted on Harry Triguboff and his family. Having fled China after World War II, Harry and his brother, Joseph, spent two decades pleading for visas so their parents could live with them in Sydney. But their pleas were rejected. Their mother, Frida, died in 1966 followed by their father, Moshe, less than a year later. He had no relatives in Israel and was alone when he died.

The reason they were refused visas remains hidden, but it almost certainly concerns allegations of wartime collaboration by Harry’s father with the Japanese. Indeed, if the Immigration Department had its way, Harry Triguboff would never have become an Australian, let alone one of its richest men. They tried to stop him, when he was 14 years old, from fleeing here from China in 1948 and considered deporting him and his brother after the pair slipped past border authorities.

In a Sydney restaurant in 2017, Triguboff is seated at a discreet table in his business attire of jacket and tie drinking a scotch. The conversation turns to the time of his father’s death and that moment 27 years later at Moriah College. “I didn’t cry at the time. I cried all those years later, that’s when I cried,” he says. “Interesting how the mind works.”

Not one to seek sympathy

Harry Triguboff is not the type who ordinarily seeks public sympathy. Having started his business at the age of 30 in 1963 with a block of eight units in Sydney’s inner south, he has built more than 75,000 apartments, along with a fortune estimated at $11.4 billion. He is Australia’s second-richest person. He almost went broke in the 1970s, and vowed never again to be so reliant on banks. He pioneered selling apartments to the Chinese – a business strategy that would prove to be a stroke of genius. He has fought and won against bureaucrats and planning ministers, waged court battles against rabbis for control of Sydney’s Yeshiva Centre and beaten off bowel cancer. The architectural quality of his buildings has been attacked, most famously by Paul Keating, and his tactics as Australia’s largest landlord have landed him in court. Yet even at the age of 84, he is still in complete charge of Meriton, his work ethic driven by a relentless desire to win in the game of business.

But the story of his family also points to a desire to stay a step ahead of the arbitrary hand of fate, and never knuckle under to petty bureaucrats and politicians. Former NSW premier Nick Greiner has known Harry Triguboff since the 1970s, when he worked for his father’s company which built roofs for Meriton apartments. Greiner says he only ever knew vague details about Triguboff’s time in China and nothing about his father’s problems. “Having heard the story I think it explains a lot,” he says. “Someone with that background would have a healthy disrespect for authority and government.”

Until now, Triguboff has even shielded his own children from the truth. “It makes me feel sad to read what you found,” says Harry’s older daughter, Orna Triguboff. “It was certainly an injustice that I never got to know my grandparents. The few times I have seen Dad tear up were all to do with him remembering his parents not being allowed to be with us in Australia. They would have died in the Chinese civil war had it not been for the state of Israel being created and I think that is a big reason Dad is a supporter of Israel,” she says.

“For someone who has been so very successful in his life, accomplishing what so many have not been able to do, he was not able to arrange his parents to live with us. It’s very sad. Dad is fiercely passionate about all the family staying in Sydney, always saying it’s the best place on earth. Maybe part of that passion is knowing the pain of separation when family members live far apart.”

The story arcs across the horrors of Japan’s invasion of China, the Communist takeover, the creation of the state of Israel, the contradictions and prejudice of Australian immigration policy over two decades and an English-Canadian-Jewish adventurer who has inspired three Hollywood movies. It is detailed in a 300-page dossier from the Department of Immigration, held in the National Archives. Having already known the story’s bare bones, I unearthed the dossier in 2011 and sent it to Triguboff in an attempt to get him to talk. He invited me to lunch and shared a few reminiscences but declined to participate in an article. Six years later, I tried again and the two of us met for lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant. Suspecting he would once again brush me off, I began my pitch. He quickly interrupted, and said in his abrupt and direct manner of talking: “Turn on the tape recorder.” The 84-year-old drank two neat scotches while we talked. We spoke mostly in English, but sometimes we talked in Russian, which is a family language for both of us.

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