When Max Lewin fled the Holocaust in the 1940s and settled in this small coal-mining town, he vowed to avoid even the most trivial conflicts for fear they would stoke nightmares of the genocide that claimed nearly his entire family.
But the man who shunned acrimony all his life has, in death, sparked an international legal fracas over a bizarrely worded last will and testament that divides his secretly accumulated $5.6 million fortune. The dispute has pitted his relatives, the Israeli government and one of the largest women's organizations in the United States against one another while drawing a high-powered foreign legal team -- including the former mayor of Tel Aviv -- to this usually sleepy swath of Appalachia.
The curious legal battle centers on the 23rd section of Lewin's will, which leaves almost half of his estate to "HADASA HOSPITAL, Tel Aviv, Israel." No organization with that spelling of its name seems to exist.
So now comes the $2.5 million question: Who gets the money?
To answer that question is to try to unravel the mysteries of Lewin himself. Friends say he shunned preparing for the future because he could not come to grips with his past.
"My father used to tell me that time heals all wounds," Lewin said in a 1996 interview with the Register-Herald newspaper. "But, for me, it hasn't."
The 17,000-person town of Beckley, nicknamed "the smokeless coal capital of the world," is a slow-moving place where everything seems to shut down during lunch and people don't ask whether you go to church, but which one you go to.
Lewin stood out. One of about 30 Jews who lived in town, he was barely 5-foot-3 and had a thick Yiddish accent that some locals found incomprehensible. Although he and his brother Harry made a comfortable living running the only upscale men's clothing store, he lived like a pauper in a one-bedroom, second-floor apartment that was sparsely furnished.
"Max was the town eccentric," said Tom Sopher, 47, a close friend and president of Temple Beth-El, the only synagogue here. "Everybody knew him as the funny little Jewish guy who went through the Holocaust."
Hardly anyone knew that he had spent thousands of dollars over the years to maintain an elegant red-brick ranch house in Beckley that no one ever slept in.
"He was afraid to live in that house because the bedroom was on the ground floor," said Helen Huzoski, 82, who was Lewin's companion for 42 years. "He was always afraid that somebody -- maybe the Nazis -- would come and take him away."
Wherever he went, Lewin always kept looking back, afraid someone was following him. And he almost never walked around after dark. But the proud merchant mentioned his fears to almost no one.
"I don't think that anybody else knew that he was actually so afraid," Huzoski said. "But he was."
The scion of a long line of rabbis, Lewin spent his childhood in the bucolic Polish countryside studying to become an engineer. But everything changed when the Nazis invaded the country Sept. 1, 1939.
He and his family were shipped to the concentration camps. And then, one by one, his parents, wife and four siblings were separated from him and taken to their death.
Somehow he survived. Eventually, he fled the horror and moved in 1946 to Beckley, where his brother had settled before World War II. He took English lessons and opened a general contracting business called Home Modernization before taking over the clothing store.
And he met Huzoski. The two spent almost every day together and would weekend at her small cabin. Her daughter began referring to Lewin as her stepfather. Huzoski, a devoted Presbyterian, began attending synagogue with Lewin. She said the two often talked about getting married. But they never did.
"If he had married Helen, I think it would have just confused his whole mental state," Sopher said. "He was just so afraid."
Lewin was plagued by uncertainty. When he donated a bell tower at Mountain State University here in his family's honor, the dedication ceremony had to be delayed for two years while Lewin obsessed over the inscription on a 105-word plaque. "It was heart-wrenching for him to make the simplest decisions," said James G. Silosky, a close friend of Lewin's and executive vice president of Mountain State.
Then there was his fear of conflict. He once skipped a run-of-the-mill meeting about leaky pipes at his temple because he feared it might turn contentious. And although he was troubled by requests for money from his niece, Rina Kalev, he never confronted her about the issue, according to Huzoski and Haggai Carmon, whose mother was Lewin's first cousin.
"He was a very gentle and sensitive person, so he would not have told her in her face, 'Stop doing that,' " Carmon said last year in a court deposition. "He simply suffered."
Kalev declined to comment for this article.
A 'Will of Sorts'
Lewin's friends and relatives could not persuade him to sit down and discuss potential terms of his last will and testament.
"He expressed on numerous occasions: 'I've got to do something. I've got to make a will.' And I think he talked to lawyers all over town about it," Silosky said. "But that never translated into actually writing anything down."
One morning -- Aug. 4, 2002 -- Huzoski pestered Lewin about the subject for what seemed like the millionth time. "He said, 'Well, I do have a will of sorts," Huzoski remembered. "But he said, 'I have to make some changes.' "
Lewin never got the chance. He collapsed later that day and was rushed to the hospital. Doctors discovered that he had advanced stomach cancer; three weeks later, at age 83, he died.
Surprise No. 1: The estate of this modest man totaled $5.6 million. "I never thought that he was poor," Huzoski said. "But I had no idea he had that much money. And I don't think he had any idea either."
Surprise No. 2: There was a six-page will. A local bank discovered the 1978 document, which none of Lewin's friends or relatives had seen or heard about, a few days after his funeral.
Surprise No. 3: The will didn't make any sense to those who knew him. It left just $4,000 to Huzoski and nothing to Mountain State, to which he had given more than $100,000 over the years. Strangest of all, it left $2.5 million each to what were described as two Tel-Aviv-based groups: "HADASA HOSPITAL" and "ISRAEL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY." No one had ever heard him mention them and, technically, no institutions with those precise names exist in that city.
Many Claims to Millions
The fighting began almost immediately. United Bank, executor of Lewin's estate, asked the courts to determine who should get what.
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.
"People always spell our name wrong in bequests," Lamb said. "We get Hasaddah, Hadassa, the wrong physical location."
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.
Meanwhile, Kalev, Lewin's niece, argued that because the will named entities that don't exist, the will should be vacated and she, as Lewin's closest living heir, should receive the millions.
But after Huzoski wrote letters to lawyers in the case saying Lewin wouldn't have wanted Kalev to receive the money, Kalev agreed to drop her claims in exchange for a lump payment of $25,000.
The case drew even closer to resolution after Raleigh County Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Burnside Jr. ruled that the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which is based in Haifa, not Tel Aviv as the will seemed to indicate, should receive about $2.5 million of Lewin's estate.
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.
There may be a hint, though, in the corner of Room 204 of a Mountain State building, where Lewin's papers are kept in a cardboard box on the floor. A scrapbook of gifts given in honor of his brother, Harry Lewin, who died in 1982, includes several donations related to Hadassah's hospitals in Jerusalem.
None of the lawyers in the case knew of the scrapbook, but Lamb said it would certainly strengthen Hadassah's claim. A ruling is expected in the coming months.
Huzoski has her own solution: The two sides should just split the $2.5 million.
"Max would never have wanted it to end like this," she said. "Anything would be better than all this fighting."