Portrait of the Artist As an Older Woman


Frieda Lefeber recently celebrated both her centenary and her first gallery show — in a span of five days.

As befitting someone mar­king their centenary, Frieda Lefeber was the object of much toasting and celebrating on March 20. 
Her birthday celebration was the second major reception in her honor in just five days, following one to recognize a major accomplishment for an artist of any age: her first gallery show.
“Frieda Lefeber: Her Life and Her Art,” an exhibition of 70 Impressionist-influenced works and portraits, which will be on display at Rosemont College’s Lawrence Gallery until April 7, opened with a 200-person reception on March 15. Lefeber says her age and association with the college both played a role in the show’s authoring.
“The college wanted to honor me since I was becoming 100,” she said, adding that her second career actually began when she took her first drawing class at Rosemont. “The teacher was so excellent that I stayed for two years, until I decided that I wasn’t getting enough information, so I applied to the Academy” — the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — “at 78, graduating with a four-year degree in painting.”
Lefeber took up painting after retiring from her first line of work — 50-plus years as a nurse in both her native Germany and in New York City, where she settled after fleeing the Nazis in the wake of Kristall­nacht. 
“I had a bad experience in Germany from 1933 to 1939, when I was finally able to get out,” she recalled. “I was a nurse at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin — I still have the certificate with a swastika on it that I was a registered nurse and only allowed to practice at the Jewish Hospital. I took care of men who had been taken prisoner and beaten in concentration camps.”
Lefeber managed to make it out of thanks to Pu­rim — a Purim party, to be specific. She was in the United States to get an affidavit for residency from one of her family members living there, “but my relatives were so poor they couldn’t give me an affidavit. Before I left, I attended a Purim party in New York and met a lady who asked me to be her au pair.”  
Armed with a guarantee of employment, Lefeber escaped the fate that befell most of her family and friends. However, things were not what she expected when she disembarked in New York.
“When I arrived here, the lady was unable to take me into her household. She did come to the boat because she had sponsored me, but then she dropped me off with a pen pal I had. I barely spoke English at that time! The pen pal couldn’t give me a room, so I slept on the floor of the foyer and covered myself with a coat.”
Unable to get a job as a registered nurse, Lefeber worked as a private-duty nurse for three years — “until my English had improved enough” — after which time she worked in hospitals until her retirement at 78.
Today, she lives in the third-floor apartment of her daughter’s home in Narberth, which she moved into following the birth of her granddaughter in 1986, with her golden doodle, which she takes for 1-mile walks every morning and afternoon. “Walking is very important,” she contended. “If an older person doesn’t do anything else, if they are able to walk, it is essential!”
Lefeber does plenty else. In addition to her daily perambulations, she works out with a personal trainer twice a week and goes to the gym thrice-weekly. “One doesn’t have to do it five days a week, though,” she elaborated. “Three days is good, too.”
In between exercise, she paints at all times — “I can paint for hours at a stretch,” she said — in her home studio. “I also like to tickle my brain,” she said. She reads constantly, including a recent turn through the pages of Winston Churchill’s autobiography, and she studies Hebrew once a week.
As busy as she likes to keep herself, Lefeber sounds as though the hullabaloo of the past several weeks might have entitled her to a bit of a break. “After the show closes, I need a good rest. It’s really overwhelming — people make a celebrity out of nobody — everybody wants to talk to me. I will take a vacation, but Florida will be too warm – maybe the West Coast.” 


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