The death of a quiet menswear merchant in Appalachian coal country is reverberating in the Holy Land as two leading Israeli hospitals wage a legal battle over the man’s estate of more than $5 million.
The dispute has shed light on the intriguing life of Max Lewin, a Holocaust survivor who made his way to southern West Virginia after World War II, and, unknown to even his loved ones, amassed a fortune.
Lewin, who died in August 2002 at age 83, willed roughly half his life’s savings to “Hadasa Hospital” in Tel Aviv. The problem: wrong spelling, wrong city.
The Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and the parent organization of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital are both staking claims to the money. A West Virginia judge’s ruling is expected soon.
Friends say Lewin would have been heartbroken. He loved Israel and abhorred conflict.
“He just did not like conflict. He thought things could be settled in an orderly fashion,” said Helen Huzoski, Lewin’s companion of more than 40 years.
Lewin was born in Poland and lost his parents, several siblings and wife in Nazi concentration camps after Germany invaded his country in 1939.
'A very frugal life'
He followed his older brother Harry to the West Virginia town of Beckley in 1946, while another brother settled in Israel.
Lewin ran a small contracting business, then took over the upscale men’s clothing store founded by Harry after the brother died in 1982, Huzoski said in a telephone interview from her home near Beckley.
Lewin, just over five feet tall with a thick Yiddish accent, stood out in Beckley, a Bible Belt town of 17,000 people whose Jewish community numbered several dozen. Yet little was known about him.
According to Huzoski and Israel Koller, a longtime rabbi in Charleston, W. Va., Lewin lived in a one-bedroom, second-story apartment, drove an old car and wore the cheapest suits in his store. No one, not even Huzoski, had any idea how wealthy Lewin was.
“He came here with nothing and lived a very frugal life,” she said. “He wasn’t out to make a show.”
He owned a house in an upscale Beckley neighborhood which he kept fully furnished with utilities running, but never slept in it because he felt unsafe there, Huzoski said.
“He didn’t like to live on a ground-floor building. He would rather be on the second floor,” she said. “This was a result of the Holocaust.”
Until the 1980s he kept his past to himself, she said. Then, at Huzoski’s urging, he began lecturing at synagogues and schools, spoke at remembrance ceremonies and sponsored a Holocaust memorial, dedicated to his family, in his adopted hometown.
“He was a Shoah man,” said Koller, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust. “Every time you saw him, the Holocaust never failed to be mentioned. Then he would cry.”
Koller said he knew Lewin well and sometimes discussed the will with him. “He said Israel can’t survive unless it survives on brains. He wanted to encourage education,” Koller said.
The rabbi said he warned Lewin that the document was problematic. It earmarked about $2.5 million each to the “Israel Institute of Technology” and “Hadasah Hospital” — both purported to be in Tel Aviv and both nonexistent under those names.
Koller said Lewin gave him the impression that he was referring to the Technion, a prestigious technical university in Haifa, and Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
“I told him on three occasions: ‘Max, put down Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem. Technion, Haifa.’ He said ‘OK.’ But he didn’t do it.”
The issue has reached the Raleigh Circuit Court, which ruled last fall that the Technion was indeed entitled to half the money.
But Judge Robert Burnside is still weighing the arguments of Sourasky, which is funded by the Israeli government, and Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, parent of the Jerusalem hospital.
Sourasky’s director, Dr. Gabi Barbash, said his hospital was founded by Hadassah in the 1920s. Although it was turned over to city control in 1931 and went through a formal name change, it was widely known as Hadassah until it was demolished and merged into the Sourasky center in the 1990s, he said.
“If the money was aimed to be given to Hadassah Hospital, Tel Aviv, Israel, clearly we have the succession rights,” he said. Buttressing this claim, hospital officials say that Lewin’s late brother, Avner, was treated at the hospital years ago.
Susan Lamb, a counsel for Hadassah in New York, said the organization believes Lewin simply misspelled the name — leaving out an “s” — and got the city wrong, just as he did in the case of the Technion.
She said Lewin was likely familiar with Hadassah because it had three local chapters in West Virginia.
Lamb said Hadassah has proposed splitting the money with Sourasky. Barbash said the offer was rejected “on principle.”
Huzoski said Lewin would have wanted the sides to settle.
“I believe he would have said to himself, ’Well, if there’s two, why don’t they split it,”’ she said.