It was a struggle that first year in America, just after World War II. Laszlo Tauber and his wife lived in a Virginia apartment so decrepit the landlord warned them not to step on the balcony because it might fall off.

But with the frugality and generosity that have characterized his life, Tauber saved $250 from his income of $1,600. Then he gave it away.

"I am a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust," Tauber wrote in a note to doctors at Walter Reed Army Hospital, where many veterans of the war were recovering from their wounds. "As a token of appreciation, my first savings I would like you to give to a soldier of your choice."

In the intervening years, Laszlo Tauber built a thriving surgical practice, started his own hospital, and in his free moments created one of the largest real estate fortunes in the region. Estimates of his wealth exceed $1 billion. He may be the richest Washingtonian you've never heard about.

He has already donated more than $25 million to medical and Holocaust-related causes. Now he's giving $15 million for scholarships to descendants of anyone who served in the U.S. military during the war years. An additional $10 million, honoring Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, will go to organizations that memorialize the Holocaust and students in Denmark and Wallenberg's native Sweden.

Several local foundation leaders say even they have never heard of Tauber, but all call the latest donations remarkable.

Tauber hopes the gifts will inspire -- or, if necessary, shame -- other Holocaust survivors who have the means to give.

When Tauber gives money, he always intends to make a moral point. And when he knows he is right, the 84-year-old says, "you can move the Washington Monument more easily."

Generous in philanthropy, parsimonious in his business dealings, Tauber is, his friends say, the most complicated man they've ever met.

Asked to describe himself, he responds, "I am a righteous, miserable creature of God."

Formed in the Holocaust

He still sees patients, does minor surgery and makes all major decisions about his varied business and philanthropic enterprises.

He's proud that he charged dirt-cheap prices for his medical services and ignored overdue bills. But he also squeezed every dime of profit from his real estate deals and pursued one failed venture all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He lives on a 36-acre estate in Potomac and gives away millions but stoops to pick up stray paper clips and writes, in tiny script, on the back of used paper.

Everything about him -- his quirks, his drive, his outlook on life -- he says can be explained by the Holocaust.

Tauber shuns publicity and must be prodded to discuss his past. People who he believes exploit the Holocaust for personal glory he calls "dirty no-goods." With the current gift, he wants to get the message to other survivors, so he will talk.

In the fading photographs he keeps in his Northern Virginia office, the team of gymnasts from the Budapest Jewish High School looks so young, and so proud. Tauber will never forget a meet in 1927, when he was 12.

"Everyone was standing, singing the Hungarian national anthem, and people started throwing rotten apples at my team, yelling, `Dirty Jews,' " Tauber says. He pauses, tears welling in his eyes. "I thought to myself: `Bastards. I will train. I will beat them. I will show them.' "

Within two years, he was a national and European champion.

"Am I competitive? Yes, unfortunately so," he says today. "Did I become a happier man? Definitely not. But my experiences made me always stand for the underdog."

Hungary was not occupied by Germany until the spring of 1944, by which time the country had the only large reservoir of Jews left in Europe. Between April and June of 1944, roughly 437,000 Hungarian Jews in the countryside were sent to Auschwitz.

"Almost all were gassed on arrival, or soon after," says Walter Reich, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Jews of the capital city were next on the list.

In this atmosphere, Tauber, at age 29, became chief surgeon at a makeshift hospital for Jews. His memories of that time are described in staccato images, interrupted by cracking voice and silent tears.

"A mother begged me to save her son. But you understand, he was dead already."

Zoltan Barta, a friend and former schoolmate, was hit in the head with shrapnel. His last words: "My dear Laci, save me."

Sandor Barna, who refused to wear the required yellow star, begged Tauber to fix the hooked nose that threatened to betray his ethnicity. But Tauber didn't have the equipment. The Nazis killed Barna. "If I could have operated on Sandor Barna," Tauber says, "he would be alive today."

But Reich says Tauber is an unsung hero, worthy of a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Imagine the irony, he says, of running a hospital for people slated to die.

"It's strange, and crazy, but also necessary, and compelling and ultimately noble," Reich says. "And he did it. And he did it as a young man. And he did it in a manner that foretold his future."

Giving and Getting

Tauber's son, Alfred Tauber, remembers as a young boy visiting New York City.

"At night, I'd walk with my father around Times Square," he says. "I'd ask, `What are you doing? Why are we here?' He'd answer, `I'm looking for my old friends.' "

And sometimes, amazingly, they would find one. If the person needed money, Tauber would arrange to give some.

Tauber had come to the United States to take a fellowship at George Washington University, where he was paid a small stipend and supplemented his income by giving physicals for 25 cents each. "I offered my services for less than a decent prostitute would charge," he says now.

Hugo V. Rissoli, a retired professor, says that Tauber was brilliant, but that the doctor assigned to be his mentor virtually ignored him, and Tauber was not asked to stay on.

Tauber sensed antisemitism and reacted much as he did when he was 12: If discrimination was to keep him from rising at an established hospital, he'd build his own. He built the hospital, the now-closed Jefferson Memorial in Alexandria, in part so he could train other young doctors who had earned their degrees abroad.

In his spare time, with a $750 loan, he began amassing the necessary fortune in real estate.

"Real estate meant independence, to practice as I wish," he says. "I spent 5 percent of my time on real estate but got 95 percent of my money from it." His development portfolio was diversified -- office, retail, government, residential. In 1985, he became the only doctor ever named on the Forbes magazine list of richest men.

Tauber takes enormous pride in his surgical skills but shows none in his real estate prowess.

Real estate, his son Alfred thinks, is the means his father uses to steel himself against an unstable world. But, says Alfred, a medical doctor and director of the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, it also "appeals to his competitive streak. He takes delight that he can play the game better than most."

Wizards owner Abe Pollin marvels at Tauber, whom he met in the early 1950s. "It took every ounce of my energy to run my real estate business," Pollin says. "I was much less successful at it than him, and he did it while running a full-time medical practice."

Tauber's real estate empire brought many battles. As the federal government's biggest landlord, he was known for building exactly to code, with no frills.

For two years, nine federal agencies fought being transferred to an 11-story building on Buzzard Point that the General Services Administration was renting from Tauber for $2.5 million a year. It was so spare, they couldn't imagine working there. Finally, the GSA strong-armed the Federal Bureau of Investigation into moving there.

Rissoli likes to tell of the time neighbors complained Tauber was putting up a three-story apartment building in an area zoned for lower buildings. Tauber took off the roof, removed a few rows of bricks and called it a 2.5-story building.

Tauber's daughter, Irene, a San Francisco psychologist, says she never realized growing up that her family was wealthy. They lived simply, in an apartment building that was part of a Tauber development in Bethesda, between Massachusetts Avenue and River Road.

But they were initially unwelcome in the neighborhood, even though they owned it.

Tauber says that soon after he submitted the winning bid to buy the land in the late 1950s, an agent representing the owners asked that he agree not to sell any of the residential tracts to blacks or Jews.

The agent was amazed when Tauber told him he was Jewish. Under threat of a lawsuit -- and at the agent's urging -- the owners went through with the deal.

The Uses of Money

Some years ago, Tauber was due at a reception at Brandeis University, where he had donated $1.6 million to establish an institute for the study of European Jewry. He needed a white shirt and steered his daughter toward Korvette's, the New York-based discount store. Inside, he headed for the basement.

"Daddy, Korvette's is already cheap," Irene protested. "You don't have to go in the bargain basement."

Tauber's only concession to his wealth is the home he shares with his second wife, Diane. (He and his first wife, now deceased, were divorced years ago.) But even his home cost him little: He made a huge profit by selling off some of the surrounding land.

But although he doesn't spend money on himself, he gives it away. He harbors resentment about the treatment he says he got at George Washington University decades ago, but he agreed to donate $1 million to the campus Hillel Center on the condition that a room be named in honor of Rissoli.

Rissoli says he did nothing more than be friendly to Tauber. But Tauber says that by being kind, Rissoli restored his faith in humanity.

One-third of the new $15 million grant will be funneled through GW, the rest through Boston University and others to be named. Recipients, to be selected by the universities, will be required to take one Holocaust-related course or tutorial.

Tauber says he hopes the gift will prompt students to think about the sacrifices of their forefathers. The funds are dedicated to the memory of his parents, as well as his uncle and his only brother, both of whom died in the Holocaust.

Why do it now?

"I don't stay here too long," he says. "At my age I should not start to read a long book."

The money, most of which will become available at Tauber's death, will be awarded with one unusual guideline: The percentage of African Americans who receive the scholarships must be at least as large as the percentage who served during World War II -- or about 6 percent, according to military historians.

"It cannot be tolerated," Tauber explains, "that those of us who were discriminated against should ever ourselves discriminate."

The Americans who fought in foreign lands for strangers, Tauber says, rescued a remnant of his people, and they saved the world.

"It is not enough," he says, "to shake hands and say thank you."

CAPTION: Holocaust survivor, surgeon and real estate tycoon Laszlo Tauber is setting up scholarships for descendants of World War II soldiers.

CAPTION: Antisemitism spurred Laszlo Tauber to 17 individual championships in national gymnastics competition.