By STEVE LINDE
AARON Frenkel is sitting in his office in his Tel Aviv beachfront home, looking back at what has been a spectacular career.
The 58-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist recalled how he had soared from a modest start in Bnei Brak to the heights of the international aviation industry.
And he revealed for the first time the pivotal role he played in flying up to a million Jews from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to Israel.
"I can say that, directly or indirectly, I flew hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union," Frenkel said.
"I was involved in the establishment of Transaero Airlines, which actually started its career by flying olim from Russia.
"There were also flights on LOT Polish Airlines from Warsaw, and from Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Tashkent, St Petersburg, Kiev and dozens of other places, which flew once or twice a week.
"There were months in which between 20,000 and 35,000 were flown to Israel. There were times when we flew 300 or 400 people every night from Warsaw. From the end of the 1980s to 1993, between 900,000 and one million Jews flew to Israel from the FSU and Eastern Europe."
He decided to tell his incredible success story after participating in a Limmud FSU Kinneret conference at Kibbutz Ginossar in December and in Los Angeles this week.
Frenkel is the president of Limmud FSU, and a major sponsor of the organisation founded to strengthen the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews around the world.
Besides heading the Loyd's group of companies that deals in aerospace, hi-tech and real estate, he has served as honorary consul of the Republic of Croatia in Israel and chairman of Shimon Peres's Israeli Presidential Conference.
He has been decorated with the French Legion of Honor and the Mecenate of Russia.
Frenkel was born in Bnei Brak to a charedi family. His mother, who is 93, survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. His late father hid in the forests of Transylvania and what was then Yugoslavia during the Second World War, and joined partisan fighters against the Nazis.
He recalled: "After her parents and seven of her 11 siblings had perished in the Holocaust, my mother returned to her home town of Munkács, but the neighbours had taken it over, so she literally started walking and moving towards Israel and arrived at a Jewish immigrant camp near Bari in Italy.
"There she met her future husband, my father, and they married and had two children there.
"They then came to Israel. My father became a military serviceman and purchased a home in Bnei Brak, where I was born in 1957 and where my mother still lives today."
The young Aaron studied in yeshivot, including the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva, but he yearned to break out of the confines of Bnei Brak and explore the world.
"I am an entrepreneur in my soul," he said. "I will always feel part of this country, the salt of the land. Israel is my home.
"I am still a big believer. I am not so good at keeping mitzvot on a daily basis, but I don't think I was ever really a typical charedi.
"If charedi means believing and fearing God, so I am. If 'charedi' means fearing everything in the outside world, I am, on the contrary, always curious to learn and know what is outside.
"And I think curiosity and the thirst for knowledge are strong motivators for every entrepreneur."
Frenkel started an investment company in the early 1980s and searched the world for products and innovations to take to Israel, especially for the Kibbutz movement, he said.
After that, he established a halva confectionery factory in Bnei Brak. He travelled to Poland for the first time in 1983 to sell the sweet.
It was then that he visited Auschwitz, before it had been open to the public as a major tourist attraction. He took a taxi one night and managed to get in from the back, seeing for the first time the back of the infamous sign, 'Arbeit Macht Frei'.
"It was shocking," he recalled. "The huts were open, full of shoes and hair, and not organised like it is today. Because my mother had been there - in fact she was for the most part in nearby Birkenau, in Hut No 13 - it gave me goosebumps."
Upon his return to Israel, Frenkel's business failed. After settling his debts, he decided to pursue his career abroad, starting with various projects in Poland.
It was during his stay there in 1988 that he received "a strange phone call" that would change his career, his life and, in some way, the course of Jewish history.
On the line was Zvi Barak, the director-general of the Jewish Agency's finance department, asking if Frenkel could help.
Mendel Kaplan, the South African-based businessman, who served as the chairman of the Jewish Agency's board of governors, had written Barak a note that Frenkel was now in Poland, proposing that he might help in flying out Jews from behind the Iron Curtain.
"People were starting to move, taking trains and buses, from Russia, and showing up," Frenkel recalled, smiling.
"Israel didn't have relations with Russia or Poland at that time. The Dutch Embassy in Moscow represented Israel, and asked what we can do.
"We knew that some of the Eastern European socialist countries were flying daily to Moscow. So why not buy all the seats on LOT Polish Airlines to Warsaw, and from Warsaw, LOT or El Al will fly to Israel?
"I was asked to see if I could organise flights from Russia to Poland, and from Poland to Israel. And I did. That was my entry point into the aviation industry.
"In the beginning, I was named an adviser to the Jewish Agency and I did it, helping them to organise flights of Jews, directly and indirectly, from the former Soviet Union to Israel. But over the course of the years, I got to know all the airlines intimately - and there were many - and I won over their trust and influence.
"We tailored a plan, and the idea caught on very well. Even without connections, we bought most of the seats and started to move olim from Moscow and other cities to Warsaw, Bucharest and Budapest, before they used to fly to Vienna."
He added: "My first move in the aviation industry was to go to the president of LOT, and he looked to me very antagonistic, and I said, 'Can you help us with this task?' And he said, 'Maybe, let me think about it'.
"And then I went to his deputy, Marek Sidor, and he said he would try to help. He later told me that the day after my visit, the Syrian military attaché in Warsaw had warned him not to help the Jews to bring immigrants to Israel.
"Then I went to the prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who had been a journalist and it was the time when Lech Walesa was president of Solidarity.
"I explained the whole story to him, and he said, 'You don't need to explain it to me. It's my duty to do it'.
"He called in the airline and gathered them in the Foreign Ministry. 'I want to know every Friday how many Jews you move from Moscow to Tel Aviv,' he said. And that's how it started.
"Then there were direct flights, and then on Transaero and other airlines, but this is how it started. I thank all the people, some of whom are alive and some are not, who helped to make this happen.
"In the end of the two or three years, in which we flew all over, we started flights from everywhere, direct and indirect, still with no relations with Russia, with no embassies, no official diplomatic relations, and I became acquainted with the Eastern Bloc aviation industry."
The impact it has had on Israel still resonates with Frenkel.
"The mass aliya, after the opening of the gates, created a different Israel," he said. "The quality of the people, the education they got there, the talent, created a new kind of fabric of society that by being in the right place with the right management, are to a large degree responsible for the flourishing of the Israeli hi-tech industry."
After helping the Jewish Agency, Frenkel was appointed Boeing's representative in Eastern Europe, and later established his own aviation company.
Frenkel visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1988, discovering what he called "a world of chronic shortages and a collapsing economy".
Today Frenkel is considered one of the most influential and successful entrepreneurs in the region that used to be the Soviet Union. His company, Loyd's Aviation Group, sells Western aircraft and technology to the Commonwealth of Independent States as well as Eastern Europe.
He said: "I think the Jewish people are never satisfied. As Shimon Peres says all the time that the dissatisfaction of individuals pushes them to do more.
"Some people say it's in our DNA, some people say it's the Jewish mother. I think Jews are always looking for different ways and places, and they will always be like that.
"Our task is to ensure that wherever they are, they are connected, they have roots in Judaism and in Israel, and that's what we're trying to do with Limmud FSU."
Frenkel believes the majority of the Jewish people should live in Israel, but Jewish communities around the world need to be strengthened.
"To feel strong in Moscow as a Jew, you need to have a strong Israel," he said.
Based in Monaco, Frenkel spends two months in Israel every year. It was there that he married his wife, Ruth (Maja Brinar), an economist and former Croatian deputy economics minister. They have five young children.
"My heart is in Israel, but I live mostly outside," he said. "I feel like I'm in the song of Mercedes Sosa, who sang in Spanish, 'I felt like I never left you.' I'm there, but I'm here. I have a house here, but I live there."
Asked what advice he can give to future entrepreneurs, Frenkel said: "I think that everybody should have a dream. We read in the Torah about Jacob's Ladder. In Jacob's dream, what do you see? You see a ladder with two legs on the ground, which is stable, going up to the sky, which means that the sky's the limit.
"So now everyone should try to have his ladder, his dream, not just floating, but with two strong legs on the ground, and it can be in every field."