Holocaust survivor Lyonell Fliss wants to build a beacon for Jerusalem

"The Jewish people and the world deserve a grand vision on the right scale in the right place at the right time."

An artist's impression of the proposed Jerusalem tower (photo credit: ANCA SZALAVICS)
An artist's impression of the proposed Jerusalem tower
(photo credit: ANCA SZALAVICS)
Lyonell Fliss, who was born in 1935 in Iasi, Romania, and survived the worst pogrom of the Holocaust there at the age of six, believes he and his parents were saved miraculously by a Romanian officer for a reason. Now, in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Report during a visit to Israel from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, the accomplished civil engineer says he has one big dream to realize: To rebuild the famous water tower he constructed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1971 and turn it into a much taller landmark, a beacon of power for Jerusalem, Israel, the Jewish people and the world. “I have the plans all in place,” he says in his Romanian-accented English, showing them to me on his laptop. “Once it receives final approval and we can find a donor, I want to shovel the first concrete on the cornerstone of what I and my partners have called The Jerusalem Heritage Forum. I want it to happen this year, in 2018. We have two months left.”
Lyonell Fliss overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem and Mount Scopus (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)Lyonell Fliss overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem and Mount Scopus (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Here is the interview in full:
What exactly is your project?
This is a joint nonprofit initiative between me and South African entrepreneur Stewart Cohen, known as Mr. Price (who is the honorary chairman of the Mr. Price Group retail chain).
How did it come about?
After I immigrated to Israel in 1970, I started to work in my profession as a structural civil engineer at a company in Haifa called Balasha-Yalon and they got a project from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to provide the water supply to the campus, which included a major structure that was the water tower. The architects were Binyamin Idelson and Gershon Tzipor, and they got me to design the water tower, and supervise its construction. When I first saw the design, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a work of art, which enhanced both the campus and, in my opinion, was as not high enough. Its size was not big enough for the scope of Mount Scopus and Jerusalem.
During construction, I inspected this structure a number of times, and when we reached the top, which is about 53 meters, I knew that this was my legacy, my contribution and connection to the State of Israel. Every time I come to Israel, I go there to climb the tower and touch it. On the top there is an observatory, which looks out at the Dead Sea and Jordan, but it is not panoramic and it doesn’t look westward toward Jerusalem and the Old City.
When we finished the construction in 1971, I remember it was lunchtime, and the laborers left, and I was left on the very top of the tower by myself [above the observatory]. There was complete silence all around, and I could see the view of the whole of Jerusalem, which gives you the feeling that you are in a totally different world. Years later, I read a very singular impression from a very famous person, who didn’t have the luxury of a tower, but visited Mount Scopus in 1831 and saw the view from up high of Jerusalem. His name was Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian prime minister of England, and he gave the best description of the view that remains imprinted in my mind. He said, “The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of earth and of heaven.” You can’t beat this description! During the various epochs of human history, Jerusalem was regarded as the center of the world, where the three continents of the world come together – Europe, Asia and Africa – and where the three monotheistic religions converge, especially Judaism and Christianity, both of which regard Jerusalem as the holiest place. When I came there for the first time, I said, “This view of Jerusalem is a treasure, with which no other view in the world can compete. The Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Empire State Building in New York are magnificent, but their observatories can’t compare with this view of 3,000 years of history. We have a treasure which, in my mind, must be shared with the rest of the world.”
How do you intend to do that?
It took me many years to think about it, and I said, “Let’s put an observatory on top of this tower, not at the level it is at present, but much higher.” I came up with a proposal three years ago which I presented to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At that time, the vice president, a woman named Billy Shapira, and others were enthusiastic and I worked on it for a year. I drew up the architectural plans and provided the funds for a feasibility study. The tower belongs to the university, but it had to consult with the army, probably for security reasons. The army objected to my plan, but they didn’t give me any reasons. They then came up with an alternative, with a balcony all around the tower and a lower-level observatory, but it wasn’t what I had dreamed of. They had calculated a budget of about 11 million dollars for the new tower, with outside scenic lifts (elevators) and an observatory on the top for visitors. At this stage, they asked me to find a major donor, but this didn’t satisfy me at all. Maybe the army’s objection was ultimately a blessing in disguise, because if we want to go for the real thing, it must have two functions: one, to see the view from the best position, and second, to be seen, to be an outstanding landmark of Jerusalem. So I thought, let’s abandon the existing tower, and build a whole new observatory and a new structure altogether, and this became my grand vision for Israel. It mobilized me to think further and dream bigger.
What is the importance of this project for Israel?
What is the symbol of Paris? The Eiffel Tower. What is the symbol of New York? The Empire State Building. What is the symbol of Egypt? The pyramids. What is the symbol of Israel and Jerusalem? The Western Wall and the Old City. The world sees this view as the symbol of Israel, but I am offering a new vision, a striking new symbol.
A symbol that means what?
Jerusalem is like a puzzle, which has experienced various eras throughout its long history. There is one piece of the puzzle that is missing. Israel has constructed the Knesset building, the Dead Sea Scrolls museum, the Bridge of Strings, but none of them offers a panoramic view of the Jerusalem skyline like this project does. We have to show people that Jerusalem’s view stretches up to the sky, and as Disraeli said, it is the history of heaven and earth and the world. If the Temple Mount is the soul of Jerusalem and Judaism, then Mount Scopus is the eye of Jerusalem.
The Mount Scopus Observatory will provide a direct view over 3,000 years of Jerusalem’s history and topography and the ancient and modern buildings of Israel’s capital.
I came to the conclusion that Israel, the Jewish people and the world deserve more than the current tower. They deserve a grand vision on the right scale in the right place at the right time, with the dual purpose of educating the world and showing what Jerusalem really is, the united capital of Israel. In my opinion, it should be the first stop for VIPs and tourists coming to Israel. It’s where Prime Minister Netanyahu should take his guests after they arrive in the country.
My project has been endorsed enthusiastically by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage as well as The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The purpose of my visit now is to get the project started this year. I think the recent decision by Israel and the United States to leave UNESCO is a passive act. It’s like leaving the room; it’s not an active act. But on your territory and in your country, you should do what you think is right, and not what others tell you. What was the result of the withdrawal of Israel and America from UNESCO? All the Arabs applauded. They considered it an eviction of Israel and America, a victory.
What do you think Israel’s response should be?
You should build a tower. This is an active response, not a passive response. It is to show that in our house, and we consider Jerusalem our home, our capital, we do what we think is right. It’s a tower representing possession of the place. You shouldn’t be scared of the world screaming, because it’s your house. If you start to analyze and split hairs, you’ll end up doing nothing. Now is the right time, the year in which the American Embassy moved to Jerusalem and the year in which Israel passed the Nation-State Law. If we delay this, we’ll lose momentum. I am calling on the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality to endorse this project this year, and I already have a place marked for the cornerstone. We have two months to go. I want a commitment from Israel that they will do it, and I will personally lay the cornerstone.
Do you have the funding to do it?
I can tell you a few figures. The Eiffel Tower receives seven million visitors a year, and draws from these visitors 140 million euros. The Empire State Building has received 86 million dollars from visitors every year for the last six years. The funding should come from an investor who sees the potential of this.
How much will it cost?
There are several alternatives that I have designed. I think it could be 100 meters or 200 meters or even 300 meters, which is the height of the Eiffel Tower. A taller tower will cost between 40 and 60 million dollars. Doesn’t Jerusalem deserve such a thing? This will be the beacon for Jews all around the world. It will also be a warning for all our enemies.
What would it mean for you personally?
Just the satisfaction of an unaccomplished duty for this country. I am not looking for a cent as a profit. Someone asked me what my sign of success would be. And I said, “I would like to come to Israel to put the first shovel of concrete on the foundation.” That means the project is on the go. This is the dream of my life. I have built over 200 big industrial projects, mostly in southern Africa, some of them the largest in the world, such as the Alusaf aluminum smelter at Richards Bay in South Africa and another one that’s even bigger in Mozambique. But this one will be the cherry on the top of my career. It must be the highest quality possible of architecture. On the top will be an open-air observatory, with lifts coming from the lobby to the top. And under that will be a revolving restaurant and an art gallery. There will be a visitors’ center on the ground floor, and various other things, such as the Einstein Memorial in memory of Albert Einstein, who had such a close connection with the university, left his archive to it and in my opinion was the greatest genius in the history of the world. Next to this is a museum of Jewish contributions to the world, including all the Nobel prizes and medical discoveries, musicians, writers, actors and chess players, called “The Jewish Mind Museum.” Next to this will be a convention center, a commercial mall, and on the road to what is currently the Botanical Gardens should be a monument for the Defenders of Mount Scopus during the years between the War of Independence and the Six Day War.
At the bottom of all this, on the ground, should be the cornerstone of the center. By chance, the road is already called “The Defenders’ Road.” I have called the whole complex “The Jerusalem Heritage Forum.”
FLISS SURVIVED the Iast pogrom in Romania, which was launched by government forces under Ion Antonescu on June 29, 1941, against its Jewish population, resulting in the murder of at least 13,266 Jews, about half its population.
His paternal grandparents, Leiba and Betti Fliss, were originally from Vaslui in Romania. After Leiba was killed while fighting in World War I, Betti  moved to Iasi with her six children. His mother’s parents, Jack and Sofia Blitzstein were from Galatzi in Romania, and also had six children. His parents, Adela Blitzstein and Lupu Fliss, who worked as a shopkeeper in fabrics in Iasi, survived the Iasi pogrom with Lyonell, their only son. After moving to Bucharest at the end of the Holocaust, they also moved to Israel, where Lupu died in 1990 at the age of 84, and Adela in 1992 at the age of 81.
In 1966, Fliss married Liliana Wiener, and they lived first in Israel and then in South Africa, where she died in 1986 at the age of 47. He then married Anita Cohen in 1987, but had no children.
Tell me a bit about your own history?
I was born in Iasi, which was the capital of Moldavia, in what is now Romania. I was six years old when the pogroms started. Even though a significant part of the population was Jewish, Iasi was the capital of antisemitism because the teachers in the schools and the universities vilified the Jews. It was the greatest pogrom of the whole Holocaust. More than 13,000 Jews (of a population  of 50,000) were massacred. My family and the Jews were herded by the Germans, who took over Romania, to the place of execution, where the pleasure of murdering them was left to the Romanians.
In my family, a miracle happened, otherwise I would be in the mass graves together with all the others. They were putting thousands of men on the death trains with the intention to kill them, and most of them died a terrible death. My escape was that when we were herded to the place of execution, which was in the courtyard of the main police station, my mother saved our lives, her and my father and me. She saw an officer next to us, a Romanian officer, and she understood what was going to happen to us. She kneeled in front of the officer, kissed his hand and begged him, “Officer, take me and my husband through the gate, but take this child and adopt him.” The officer, a young man, asked her to get up, and said, “Madam, I’ll try to save all of you.” He didn’t know us, we didn’t know him, and he took us by the hand, risking his life, to the end of the line. Meanwhile, the massacre was stopped, and the women and children were sent home, and the men were sent on the death trains. But my family was saved. And ever since then, I’ve asked myself, “Why did he do such a thing? For no benefit? Why did he risk his life? I’m an engineer and I’m always looking for a logical answer that makes sense. I went to a number of places to ask this question, including the archbishop of Moldavia in Iasi. I asked him, “How do you explain this?” And he said, “It was an act of God.” And I started to think in a similar way.
On the 70th anniversary of the pogrom, five of them in their nineties received honorary citizen certificates. Four of them said they don’t have any sense of revenge, even though it was the Romanians and not the Germans who murdered them. Only one, who I know and who was a simple farmer, said the deepest saying I ever heard. He said, “My only wish is that what happened 70 years ago, this massacre, will never happen again.”
For the whole Holocaust period, my family lived in a kind of ghetto, and when the war ended, we moved to Bucharest, and then after graduating as a civil engineer, I did something which many thought was wrong in communist Romania. I applied to go to Israel, which they thought was treason. After I applied for a passport for 12 years and never received an answer, I planned my escape. In 1969, I drove across the border in my car to Hungary, then through Czechoslovakia to Austria. It was like the story of James Bond.
After I crossed the Iron Curtain, I went to the Israeli Embassy in Vienna and I asked for political asylum. In 1970, I flew to Israel, where I found work on the design and construction of the water tower at The Hebrew University, and then during the Yom Kippur War, I fought on the Golan Heights. But that’s another story.
I always liked my profession, civil engineering for heavy industry, and Israel didn’t have such an industry at the time, except for Nesher cement works. So I looked for an English-speaking country with a developing heavy industry, and that’s how I found South Africa. In 1975, I was immediately employed by a company in Johannesburg called EMS-Murray & Roberts, the country’s largest construction company, and after a few years became their chief engineer. Since 2001, I have my own company, Lyonell Fliss & Associates, and I work in cooperation with local and international engineering firms.
How did you come up with your vision of the new tower?
It first came to me while I was inspecting the erection of the water tower on Mount Scopus and watching from its increasing height the extraordinary panoramic view of Jerusalem and surrounding countryside. As the years passed, I had the vision of building a panoramic observatory there to share this unique experience with Israel and the rest of the world. I realized that it was an invaluable heritage treasure of the Jewish people, which should be exposed to the entire world by building a tall tower on Mount Scopus that would be open to the public. I visualized the tower as the missing landmark and symbol of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the State of Israel. The vision is now almost 50 years old and it is already long overdue to be implemented. 2018, after the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 100th jubilee of The Hebrew University, should be the perfect time for this vision to become a reality by symbolically laying a cornerstone of The Jerusalem Heritage Forum. It is my vision and it will hopefully be my legacy, but more importantly, it will be my gift to Jerusalem and Israel, to the Jewish people and the world.