Bill Morris in Board Operations on February 27, 2020
Maks Etingin, a pioneer in the world of New York housing cooperatives, died recently at the age of 92. A native of Vilna, Poland, and an electrical engineer by training, Etingin followed his father Albert into the family business, Orsid Realty, in 1969 and guided it through the wave of conversions as rental buildings morphed into co-ops and Orsid morphed from a landlord into a property management company. Today, with 94 employees and a portfolio of 173 buildings, it’s one of the biggest and most reputable in the city.
“Maks was the last of the old-time, quintessential New York converters,” says Neil Davidowitz, Etingin’s son-in-law, who joined Orsid in 1986 and is now the company’s president. “Unlike almost anybody else around today, he went from buying buildings with mattress money and then converting them to co-ops. He always said he was happy to have made so many millionaires.”
Etingin came to New York after World War II, studied electrical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, then got into the real estate business almost by accident. In 2002, writing in the 20th-anniversary issue of Habitat, he recalled: “It’s strange because I never planned to do this. When I came to New York, I was working as an electrical engineer. My father was in real estate. He had a couple of heart attacks, and my mother pleaded with me to come into the office to help out for two weeks while he recovered. So I promised them that I would come in for two weeks. And the two weeks stretched out to a long time.” That long time was destined to last another 17 years after he wrote those words.
Etingin’s long life had its dark moments. He and his parents and younger brother were confined in the Jewish ghetto when the Germans occupied Vilna, present-day Vilnius, Lithuania. When German soldiers started taking Jews into the nearby forest to be shot, a Polish Catholic friend of the family dug an underground chamber to hide the Etingins. For 10 and a half months the family lived underground, in a space so cramped they were unable to stand up. Their Polish friend delivered food and removed their waste every day – until Russian troops arrived and liberated the town.
“When you have to survive, you survive,” Etingin said in a 2017 interview on the Jewish Broadcasting Service. “In fact, we felt safer in the hole than we felt in the ghetto.” Asked if he encouraged other Holocaust survivors to tell their stories, Etingin replied, “I encourage them to talk because in another 10 years there won’t be many of us left.”
He leaves behind his wife Rochelle, daughters Orli and Doreen, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Davidowitz, whose father survived the Auschwitz and Mathausen concentration camps, says that he and his father-in-law worked well together despite their striking differences of temperament. Maks was compact and wiry, all business – “a hard guy to negotiate with,” in the words of one former tenant, “a very tough character” – who was mystified by such newfangled contraptions as computers and cell phones. His son-in-law, on the other hand, a big man with a booming laugh, embraces technology and has become the company’s gregarious face. “We were the Felix and Oscar of New York real estate, polar opposites,” Davidowitz says with a chuckle. “Yet for 33 years we worked side by side, and though we disagreed all the time, we never had a fight.”
After a pause, he adds, “I miss him terribly. I miss him every day.”
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