After escaping from the Nazis at age 14, Jona Goldrich made his way via Hungary and Israel to the U.S., where he hoped to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Told his language skills were too weak, he rode a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles in the early 1950s with about $50 in his pocket. There he settled, created a real estate empire and helped build a Holocaust museum.
Mr. Goldrich specialized in subsidized apartment buildings, though he also built higher-end housing in downtown Los Angeles and the seaside community of Marina del Rey. He favored function over architectural flourishes. “Don’t fall in love with your real estate,” he advised. “Fall in love with your bank account.”
Mr. Goldrich died June 26 of what his family described as natural causes. He was 88.
The self-made mogul was known for giving to educational, Jewish and Israeli causes. He didn’t hand out much praise to employees. His attitude was “I never tell you when you do a good job because that’s what I hired you for,” Steve Erdman, a cousin who worked for him, recalled fondly. “I only tell you when you do a bad job.”
David Rochkind, who helps oversee the Goldrich family businesses, said the patriarch wasn’t “touchy-feely.” He advised employees making decisions about his interests to “pretend like it’s your own money.”
Despite wealth estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, colleagues said Mr. Goldrich didn’t travel first class. He preferred to walk a few blocks, even after his knees went bad, to avoid paying for valet parking.
Raymond Levy, whose family invested jointly in some real estate deals with Mr. Goldrich, recalls him as risk-averse. “I’d rather be sorry I didn’t do a deal than sorry I did,” Mr. Goldrich told him. Another Goldrich motto: “Don’t tell me how much I can make. Tell me how much I can lose.”
Goldrich family companies own about 120 apartment buildings in California. Many are occupied by low-income people with Section 8 or other housing subsidies. Mr. Goldrich latched onto federal and state housing programs for the poor during President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” of the mid-1960s.
“I got satisfaction out of providing poor people with housing, but I made money at it,” he told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2001. “They limited how much money you could make, but there was zero risk.”
Mr. Goldrich also was an early investor in more upscale housing in downtown Los Angeles and Marina del Rey. In addition, his family owns property scattered around the U.S., including shopping centers, office buildings, warehouses and industrial sites.
He spoke heavily accented English and started with no political or business connections in a business that requires them. “He was pure brilliance of idea and force,” said Aliza Karney Guren, chief executive of Karney Properties Co., which invested in numerous projects with Mr. Goldrich.
Yona Goldreich, who later tweaked the spelling of his name, was born on Sept. 11, 1927, in Lvov, Poland. His family was in the lumber business. In 1942, his parents paid smugglers to get Yona and a younger brother into Hungarian forests and out of the Nazis’ reach. Their father’s parting advice: “Make sure that nobody ever feels sorry for you.”
Yona’s father, mother and older brother died in the Holocaust.
“Every time I can’t sleep, I think of them,” he told one interviewer. “I think, I’m making it up. How did the world let this happen?”
The young Mr. Goldrich worked in Israel as an auto mechanic and union official before emigrating to the U.S. His first nights in Los Angeles were spent at downtown hotels charging $1 a night. He found work installing windows and screens, then founded a business to remove debris from construction sites. His work for other builders convinced Mr. Goldrich that he could be a developer. In 1956, he started his own property firm. Another Holocaust survivor, Sol Kest, became his partner.
Among Mr. Goldrich’s major charitable causes were Tel Aviv University and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park. He worried that too few young people knew about the Holocaust. “We’re teaching in school about Julius Caesar, about Hannibal, about nonsense,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You shouldn’t graduate from high school without knowing about the Holocaust.”
Mr. Goldrich played tennis and skied. He met real estate buddies at the Nate ’n Al deli in Beverly Hills on weekend mornings. Poker and political gossip diverted him. Mostly, though, life was about work and creating a fortune that might protect his family for generations.
“Life was to be endured, not enjoyed,” said Mr. Erdman, his cousin.
Mr. Goldrich is survived by his wife of 56 years, Doretta, and a brother in Israel, Avraham, along with two daughters and three grandchildren. His businesses now are managed by heirs of himself and his partner Sol Kest, who died in 2010, including Barry Cayton, a son-in-law of Mr. Goldrich.
Write to James R. Hagerty at email@example.com