Israeli interests wrangle over chunk of Beckley man's $5.6 million estate

By Ann Knef | Dec 14, 2005

For decades Max Lewin assumed the life of a modest Beckley businessman, concealing horrific details of how the humanity was stripped from his life.

Lewin escaped a Nazi prison camp and emigrated to the U.S. in 1946, settling where his brother, Harry, had come before the war. But he could never shake the fear of being hunted down, and perhaps never erase the painful memories of his parents, wife and four siblings who were killed in the camps he was able to flee.

The owner of a men's clothing story named Harry's Men's Store, Lewin lived modestly in a second story apartment, reportedly out of a deep-seated fear of a ground floor invasion. Yet, he maintained an "elegant red-brick ranch house in Beckley that no one ever slept in," states an article in the Dec. 13 edition of the Washington Post.

As reported by the Post, Lewin spent most of his life avoiding conflict "for fear they would stoke nightmares of the genocide that claimed nearly his entire family."

At age 83, Lewin died in 2002. To the surprise of many, the man who lived like a pauper was discovered to be worth $5.6 million.

And the acrimony he so deliberately avoided, now defines the division of his estate.

Even though $2.5 million will go to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, it is up to Raleigh County Circuit Court Judge Robert Burnside Jr. to settle a dispute among competing interests on where the remaining assets should be directed.

A six-page will Lewin drafted in 1978 was discovered by a bank one day after his funeral and it contained surprises and the basis for contention.

His companion of 42 years, Helen Huzoski, was left $4,000.

"I never thought that he was poor," said Huzoski as quoted in the Post article. "But I had no idea he had that much money. And I don't think he had any idea either."

Lewin and Huzoski spent a great deal of time together, according to the Post article, but never married.

"Her daughter began referring to Lewin as her stepfather," the article stated. "Huzoski, a devoted Presbyterian, began attending synagogue with Lewin. She said the two often talked about getting married. But they never did."

Tom Sopher, a close friend of Lewin's and president of Temple Beth-El, said Lewin was "just so afraid."

"If he had married Helen, I think it would have just confused his whole mental state," the article quoted Sopher as saying.

Lewin's will also left nothing to Mountain State University, in spite of Lewin's benevolence totaling $100,000 over the years.

Because Lewin's will did not accurately name the institution—he called it the "Hadasa Hospital"—the ambiguity has two groups in Israel claiming they are the rightful inheritors.

The Post describes the battle this way:
"Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, which is owned by the Israeli government, made the first claim that it was the so-called Hadasa Hospital. Turns out, there was a Hadassah Hospital (spelled with two S's and an H) founded in Tel Aviv in 1928, which became the Municipal Hospital of Tel Aviv in 1931 and transformed through various iterations until the 1990s, when it became part of Sourasky.
Although the formal name changed, people continued referring to the hospital as Hadassah, said Lewin's relative Carmon, who is also an Israeli lawyer representing Sourasky. "Everybody who grew up in Israel knows this place as Hadassah Hospital," said Carmon, who said his mother worked at the hospital and Lewin's brother was treated there in 1957.

That argument didn't fly with Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, which founded the above-mentioned hospital in Tel Aviv and raises funds for hospitals in Jerusalem and other Jewish charities. The group said Lewin would clearly have known about its work because it had branches in Beckley and other parts of West Virginia.

Many American Jews refer to Hadassah's medical center as Hadassah Hospital, said Susan Lamb, an attorney for the group, which is one of the largest women's organizations in the country. She said Lewin might have misidentified the medical facilities' location as Tel Aviv because the city was once Israel's capital...

Lamb said there is no evidence that Lewin ever knew that Sourasky or its predecessor hospitals were known as Hadassah. She noted that Hadassah's name is trademarked in Israel and that Sourasky has promised not to call itself Hadassah Hospital...

So the legal battle came down to Sourasky vs. Hadassah for the remaining money, also about $2.5 million...

Representatives for both sides traveled to southern West Virginia for the September trial. But despite testimony from a former mayor of Tel Aviv and a Hadassah official, no one seemed to know for sure what Lewin really meant in his will."

Huzoski believes there is a simple way to resolve the dispute, each side should agree to a split of the remaining $2.5 million.

"Max would never have wanted it to end like this," she said in the Post article. "Anything would be better than all this fighting."

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