Holocaust survivor Frieda Lefeber, who became an artist upon retiring from a decades-long nursing career — and had her first gallery show after turning 100 — died Nov. 5. She was 103.
Daughter Hope Lefeber said her mother, who lived with her for the past 23 years, lived life to the fullest.
“She was picking up groceries up until two or three months ago,” Hope Lefeber said. “She was a bastion of energy.”
A native of Germany, she was left alone there in the late 1930s when her parents departed to Palestine. She worked as a nurse in Berlin and made it through Kristallnacht in 1938 before getting out via Holland a few months later.
“I had a bad experience in Germany from 1933 to 1939, when I was finally able to get out,” Frieda Lefeber told the Jewish Exponent in 2015. “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.”
Frieda Lefeber arrived in New York with $4 in her pocket and spent a fretful day waiting for a woman who was supposed to provide an affidavit of employment; if she wasn’t “claimed,” she faced being sent to Ellis Island, then deported back to Germany.
“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,” Frieda Lefeber said. “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.”
“My mom slept on the floor for 10 days and spent the days knocking on Park Avenue doors looking for a job as a nurse,” Hope Lefeber said, noting that her mother found employment on the tenth day, spending several decades as a nurse and an electrologist.
During a stint as a nurse with the Merchant Marines in 1946, Frieda Lefeber ended up on a boat destined for Haifa and got to see her parents again.
“Her mom fainted when she saw her daughter,” Hope Lefeber said, adding that they had no advance notice she was arriving.
Upon retiring in her late 70s, Frieda Lefeber became interested in painting, eventually enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and becoming, at 83, its oldest graduate.
Frieda Lefeber painted prolifically, completing more than 300 works and was honored in 2015 at Rosemont College with an exhibition.
“The college wanted to honor me since I was becoming 100,” she said then, adding that 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 [PAFA].”
Hope Lefeber said her mom stayed busy aside from painting in her later years, helping to raise her grandchildren, self-publishing her autobiography and being interviewed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Frieda Lefeber is survived by her daughter, Hope Lefeber; granddaughters Dana Kessler and Rachel Kessler Yedid (Scott); and great-grandsons Cole and Ryan Yedid. Contributions in her memory may be made to the Holocaust Museum and the Main Line Home Care & Hospice Foundation.