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Pongrass, Alexander (Alex) (1923–2000)

by Attila Urmenyhazi

Alexander Pongrass, n.d.

Alexander Pongrass, n.d.

photo supplied by Attila Ürményházi

Alexander Pongrass (Sándor Pongrácz) was born into an impoverished family on 10 November 1923 in Nyiregyháza, North-east Hungary. He was the second of three brothers in the family. Although endowed with scholastic aptitude, his parents could not afford his schooling past age 14. Well motivated, he then started on a textile apprenticeship but soon expanded his education by studying bookkeeping at evening technical college. Aged 16, at the outbreak of WWII he left home and quit his apprenticeship to work in his uncle's newspaper distribution business. He never saw his parents, who perished in the Auschwitz death camps, again. His brother, George, luckily survived the forced labour camps of Dachau. In 1944, when Hungary was under Nazi Germany occupation, Alex joined the Jewish underground, and managed to obtain false identity papers to pose as a liaison officer with the SS guards command in order to bring Hungarian Jews to the legendary Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who, by issuing protective Swedish passports, saved about 4500 Jews from death march deportation and/or execution. 

After the war, Alex established connections to profit from commercial ventures, supplying food to a famishing Vienna. In 1947 he met his future wife Klára. Realizing that no prosperous future was possible for them in their homeland, they fled across the border to Austria in March 1949. Under the care of the United Nations Refugee Agency (IRO) they became refugees and languished in an Austrian IRO camp for a year. Like thousands of other refugees, the penniless couple, who could not speak any English, landed in Sydney in 1950 after almost a month-long journey by ship.

In Sydney, Alex earned 7 pounds per week doing nondescript manual work. Always astute, he saw great potential to prosper once his initial, mandatory, two year work contract with the government expired. A big change came when his elder brother, George, an engineer, arrived in Australia. Combining their individual skills — Alex as a businessman-trader, George as engineer-inventor — they established an engineering works to design and market significant industrial innovations. In 1951 they formed a company that specialised in the research and development of pneumatically operated clamping machines and bought a block of land at Rosebery for their manufacturing base. Inventing and producing the first Australian pneumatically-operated tube bending machine, their company was a spectacular success. 

From then on Pongrass Engineering never looked back. The company changed its name to Pongrass Brothers Pty Ltd, and in 1960 added a fibreglass division which manufactured 28ft luxury boats and afterwards 12-17ft aluminum fishing and "runabout" pleasure craft. In 1972 the company sold 1000 boats, making it the largest NSW company in its field. 

The enterprising brothers systematically expanded to buy up companies in industries utilizing their novel technology such as in metal furniture and plumbing supply. Their Rosebery-based company continually expanded and was publicly listed in 1965. By the mid-1970s they had plants in Auckland, Brisbane and Melbourne, employing over 600 people. In the "mineral boom" period of Australia (1969-1974), Alex invested in mining exploration companies such as Kratos Uranium and Stellar Mining and also found time to seriously engage in real estate business. 

Alex Pongrass greatly contributed to the Hungarian communal life in Sydney. He financially supported many charity drives, and gave a generous donation, of the equivalent value of a suburban house, to help the refugees arriving in Sydney after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. 

His greatest passion in life, however, was soccer. In 1958 he took over the St George-Budapest soccer club, then facing financial collapse despite fielding brilliant players. In those years the clubhouse at Hurstville (St George District) was mostly patronized by Hungarian migrants finding a venue for their week-end socializing, discussing soccer and their beloved club's players who were mostly ethnic Hungarians, as in those days soccer was mainly the sport of young immigrants playing for their own ethnic based clubs. For forty years running Alex was their irreplaceable and successful president. In that time "his" club won every imaginable trophy, cup, and honour, and contributed an extraordinary number of players to the national soccer team. The wealthy businessman was the benefactor in the building of the Saint George Stadium (Barton Park Stadium) which has a total capacity of 15,000, including 2,500 seats. It is currently the home to the St. George Club (changed from St George-Budapest) which plays in the New South Wales Premier League. 

To have a break from demanding business activities, NSL soccer politics, etc. the patriarch of soccer indulged in a hobby, that of horse breeding and riding. Alex and Claire (Klára) Pongrass had 2 sets of twins and eventually 13 grandchildren. In his later years, he was able to devote more time to his large family whom he idolized. Alex received the AM (Member of the Order of Australia) in 1988 for his contribution to soccer in Australia. In recognition of his long record of outstanding benevolence and help to charity, the Rotary Club, of which he was a member, conferred upon him their highest honour. Even in his last hours, Alex Pongrass was either surfing the internet or evaluating deal prospects to benefit family members. The unique and good man passed away on June 2000 in Sydney.

Original publication

  • unpublished, 2011

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Attila Urmenyhazi, 'Pongrass, Alexander (Alex) (1923–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/pongrass-alexander-alex-14018/text24955, accessed 24 November 2017.

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