Howard and Lottie Marcus were both born in Germany in the years before Hitler’s rise. They both had the good fortune of leaving their homeland before the Holocaust – Lottie to the U.S. as a teenager, and Howard to Italy as a young dentist and eventually the U.S. thanks to a patient with government connections. Tragically, other than one of Howard’s sisters, the rest of their family members were killed by the Nazis.
From this humble beginning, no one could have guessed that this couple, who met and married in the States, would wind up giving $400 million to fund Israeli water research, perhaps the biggest charitable gift in the Holy Land’s history.
The Marcuses lived quietly and frugally. Their small indulgences included an occasional ski vacation with Ben Graham [the famous “father of value investing”] and his girlfriend (and future wife). One day, they asked their friend for investment advice. Graham told them about a student of his at Columbia Business School, a young man he thought a prodigy. He invited that student, Warren Buffett, to meet Howard and Lottie. They put most of their nest egg in Mr. Buffett’s new partnership, which later became Berkshire Hathaway.
With annual compounding, that investment grew to millions and then to many millions. But the Marcuses continued to live modestly. No one who knew them had any idea of the magnitude of their wealth.
The couple retired to California, where they got involved in world affairs, particularly water security issues in the Middle East.
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.