Born in Romania in 1923, Besen survived the Holocaust, narrowly escaping with his life after fleeing with his family on a small vessel which sank.
Arriving in Australia in 1947, Besen established himself in the fashion industry, going into business with John Gandel in the Sussan chain begun by Gandel’s parents Sam and Fay. With Besen as managing director, Sussan became one of the largest fashion retail outfits in Australia, to which Besen added the Suzanne Grae and Sportsgirl brands.
The Sussan Group acquired interests in major shopping centres, including Highpoint and Whitehorse Plaza in Melbourne and Chatswood Chase in Sydney.
In 1950, Besen married Eva Gandel, John Gandel’s sister, who died in 2021. The Besens visited Israel in 1958, and a conversation with prime minister David Ben-Gurion sparked an abiding interest in supporting development in the Negev.
The family set up the Besen Family Foundation in 1978. As part of its 40th anniversary grants program in 2018, it funded the first high school and high-tech hub in Ramat HaNegev.
The Besens supported medical research and healthcare, donating $15 million to Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, which named its cancer centre after the couple. They gave to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. The couple established the Besen Family Performing Arts Centre and the Eva and Marc Besen School of Music at Mount Scopus College.
Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler described Besen as “an incredibly decent human being and proud Jew … the embodiment of Australia’s multicultural success story. Australia provided him an opportunity to build a new life after fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust, and he felt it was his responsibility to give back – which he did, many times over.”
Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said Besen’s philanthropy “to so many communal causes … was path breaking and extraordinary”.
United Israel Appeal Australia president Esther Frenkiel reflected, “The UIA is saddened by the loss of Marc Besen – a wonderful community figure, kind soul and generous man, both in spirit and philanthropic vision. The UIA is indebted to the generosity of Marc and Eva Besen and the Besen Family Foundation for their support for Israel through the United Israel Appeal. Marc and Eva were instrumental in facilitating the annual Major Donor dinners, often hosted in their own home, and we fondly reflect on those warm and generous occasions.
“His philanthropic endeavours for the Jewish community and beyond will be felt for generations to come. The UIA’s relationship and partnership with the Besen family spans decades, and their recognition as UIA patrons is valued and appreciated. Noteworthy was Eva’s contribution to the UIA Women’s Division of Victoria as one of the founding members and presidents.”
Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett paid tribute to Besen as someone who shared his business wealth with the community. “Over the last few weeks, it must have been particularly sad for him to witness again war in the Middle East.”
Eulogising Besen at his funeral, close friend Mark Leibler reflected, “Marc and his beloved Eva exemplified the spirit of tikkun olam: the drive to make the world a better place.”
Besen is survived by his children Naomi, Carol, Debbie and Daniel.