Did the Israeli government con Simon Lechtuz, an apparently penniless recluse, out of $5 million by reneging on a deal to bury him in the Jewish state?
Or are greedy relatives of Lechtuz, a lifelong bachelor, trying to divvy up the unexpected fortune of a man they ignored while he was alive?
The question is currently under debate in a U.S. Superior Court in California.
There is agreement on some basic points. Lechtuz was born in 1912 in Warsaw, emigrated to Palestine in 1924 and served with the British army during World War II.
He came to California in 1950, settled in the city of San Pedro and made a living bartering and trading leftover flour sacks and steel drums.
About 15 years ago, Lechtuz moved to the Leisure World retirement community in Laguna Hills, Calif. To neighbors there he appeared destitute, disheveled and eccentric, frequently rummaging through trash containers.
“I felt sorry for him. People avoided him because of his dirty appearance, his difficult foreign accent, his lack of personal hygiene and his odd, even weird, behavior,” Leisure World resident Jonel Konstantin said of Lechtuz in court papers. “He looked like he didn’t have a dime and he would wear the same clothes day after day.”
On Oct. 9, 2000, Lechtuz was found slumped over a garbage can in front of a supermarket. He died three weeks later at age 88.
Unable to locate Lechtuz’s relatives, Orange County officials arranged to have him buried in a local secular cemetery.
Nobody suspected that Lechtuz had invested the profits from his second-hand bartering and peddling in real estate and municipal bonds, amassing a fortune of $5 million.
Nobody, that is, but the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, which Lechtuz contacted in 1994 to discuss a bequest. In his will’s final version, he arranged to leave roughly $1 million each to the Israeli army, navy, air force, Technion — Israel Institute of Technology and the Hadassah Medical Organization.
In return, Lechtuz asked that after his death, his body be flown to Israel for a military, or at least a Jewish, burial.
For the next four years, negotiations continued between Lechtuz and lawyers Susan Greenberg and Marc Stern, representing the Israeli government, according to court documents filed by relatives contesting the bequest to Israel.
Lechtuz’s numerous nieces and nephews in Haifa and Los Angeles were unaware of his death until informed by lawyers for the Israeli government adjudicating the will.
When the relatives learned that he had been buried in Orange County, they raised $15,000 to have his body exhumed and re-buried in a Haifa cemetery, according to their attorney, Dan Maccabee.
In the present lawsuit, Maccabee says Israel spent $5,000 to process Lechtuz’s will and trust, but then reneged on its promise to bury Lechtuz in Haifa.
Maccabee also maintains that six months after signing the will benefiting Israel, Lechtuz contacted his own lawyer and drew up a different will leaving his estate to his nieces and nephews. However, before the will reached Lechtuz for his signature, he collapsed and then died, Maccabee said.
Attorney Michael Greene, now representing the Israeli government, said his client accepted the bequest but never formally promised to bury Lechtuz in Haifa.
He also countered a charge by Yoseffa Teitel of Woodland Hills, Calif., a niece of Lechtuz, that the Israeli government hounded Lechtuz to sign the will while his mental and physical condition was deteriorating.
On the contrary, “Mr. Lechtuz was a strongly independent guy,” Greene said. “He knew what he wanted” and purposely cut his relatives out of his will.
The court case is expected to last three weeks.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.