Andrew Harper may owe his life to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which accepted the Romanian native during the Second World War, allowing him to leave Europe before catastrophe befell the Jews.
Hebrew University’s approval of his application secured Harper rare entry into British Mandatory Palestine.
He and his younger brother got out of Romania in 1940, just as its fascist government entered into an alliance with Nazi Germany.
Today, Harper, 96, is paying back that good fortune with a $1.3-million donation to the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University (CFHU).
He is also honouring the memory of his beloved wife of more than 60 years with the establishment of the Carole and Andrew Harper Research Complex in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), which is affiliated with Hebrew University’s faculty of medicine.
Harper and his wife, Carole, who died four years ago, moved to Montreal shortly after they married in 1954. In partnership, they built a successful fine chocolate and biscuit importing business.
Harper’s life was dramatic before he settled in Montreal. His parents fled Romania after he did, and were reunited with their sons in Bombay. The war still on, the family travelled by boat to Havana.
Before the end of the war, Harper obtained a U.S. visa and was immediately drafted. Probably because of his knowledge of several languages, he was assigned to the air force’s counter-intelligence corps.
After his discharge, he studied business administration at Columbia University. He then returned to Cuba, to get a master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American affairs at the University of Havana.
He was hired by DuPont in Delaware as an advertising manager, but left after three years to start his own business, opening an office in the Empire State Building in New York.
He and Carole Harper, a native New Yorker, came to Montreal after some European manufacturers expressed an interest in exporting to Canada.
After retirement, the Harpers, who had been generous but discreet givers to charity over the years, decided to undertake a major project by giving their business’s building to the city to create a soup kitchen.
Then they discovered the MADA Community Centre, a Chabad-run program that was already providing that service on a non-sectarian basis, and began supporting it instead. Harper’s seven-figure gift last year was recognized with the naming of MADA’s renovated and enlarged headquarters in the couple’s honour.
With the guidance of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, Harper, who has no children, has been making large donations to other organizations that help the most vulnerable, such as shelters for women and an Alzheimers support group.
Harper said he is inspired both by his father, who was a religious and charitable man, and Carole, who was generous and selfless.
Harold Merton, Harper’s accountant who has known him for 40 years, told The CJN that the couple “were together 24 hours a day. In all the time I knew them, I never heard either raise their voice. They had total respect for each other. He’s still heartbroken over her loss.”
As for their philanthropy, he said “They were always low-key, they never wanted any accolades. That’s what his parents taught him.”
Hebrew University president Asher Cohen, who came to Montreal to celebrate Harper’s donation, said the money will benefit four labs led by four outstanding researchers, including IMRIC chair Haya Lorberboum-Galski.
Many important medical discoveries have been made at Hebrew University over its long history, he said, and he believes it is on the verge of more.
“I’m absolutely sure there will be new exciting discoveries that will help humankind. We promise to deliver, to do good things,” Cohen said.
In 2008, CFHU undertook to raise $50 million to create the IMRIC, said Rami Kleinmann, CFHU’s national executive director, who was also in town for the occasion.
Ari Brojde, the president of CFHU’s Montreal chapter, said support like this from abroad will help to retain and recruit top scientific and academic talent to Israel, and to keep Hebrew University among the premier institutions of higher learning in the world.
Cohen added that Hebrew University, which was founded 101 years ago, was “the very first Zionist project in modern Israel,” and remains a source of pride to the Jewish people.
Cohen presented Harper with a copy of the Koren Tanakh, the version of the Bible on which Israeli presidents have taken the oath of office since the 1960s.