Holocaust Survivors Give Historic $400 Million Gift to Ben-Gurion University

A couple who survived the Holocaust and made a fortune investing with Warren Buffett left a $400 million bequest to Ben-Gurion University (BGU), believed to be the largest-ever gift to an Israeli university.

The university’s American fundraising arm announced the gift from the estate of Dr. Howard and Lottie Marcus of San Diego on Friday. Howard Marcus died two years ago at the age of 104, and Lottie Marcus died this past December at the age of 99.

The bequest, much of which is earmarked to fund water-related research, is expected to double the size of BGU’s current endowment. The university’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research focuses on sustainability of water resources, desalination techniques, and improving water quality.

“Both Howard and Lottie lost nearly all members of their German-Jewish families — families that were annihilated by the Nazi Holocaust. Their legacy is a triumph over the forces of evil that very nearly erased them from the face of the earth more than 70 years ago,” Lloyd Goldman, president of American Associates of Ben-Gurion University, said in a statement.

Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, first met the Marcuses in the early 1960’s. “We hit it off, and they joined my investment partnership. Knowing them, it comes as no surprise that they elected to use their financial success to enhance the lives of thousands of Israeli young people,” he said in the statement announcing the gift.

Seth Siegel, author of Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solutions for a Water-Starved World, explained (Google link) motivation behind the couple’s historic bequest in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday:

By chance in 1997 they met a development officer representing Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and learned about the school’s work in desalination and desert farming, among other areas. A few years later they made a generous gift to support the school’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. But they still needed to find a home for the rest of their large, and growing, fortune.

In 2005 Howard and Lottie, now 95 and 89, made the long flight—in coach—from California to Israel. They returned with clarity on what to do with their estate.

Howard and Lottie loved America and often expressed gratitude for having been saved from certain death by the benevolence of their adoptive homeland. Yet they also often told friends that if Germany—“the most civilized nation in the world,” in their words—could descend into barbarity and the mass murder of Jews, it could happen anywhere. A strong and secure state of Israel, they believed, would have saved their families from the Nazis and was essential for the future of the Jewish people. So the couple decided to give nearly all of their estate to Ben-Gurion University, with a special emphasis on its being used to further research into improving water management, conservation and irrigation for dry-lands agriculture.

Drawing on Siegel’s book and an interview with the author, David Hazony, editor-in-chief of The Tower, explained How Israel is Solving the Global Water Crisis in the October 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine.

[Photo: David Shankbone / WikiCommons ]