A REMARKABLE LIFE: Frieda Lefeber at home in Penn Valley//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
When Frieda Lefeber was a child, her governess killed herself. The Holocaust then claimed 15 members of Lefeber’s family and separated others. She later suffered two miscarriages, her husband’s nervous breakdown and suicide watch, and a brother’s death in an insane asylum.
Lefeber could be bitter about it all. She’s not. Far from it, she is now 100 years old and searching for more. “Everything you see here (at home) I painted,” says the Penn Valley resident. “Now, I have a whole museum. The art freed me.”
The keys to her longevity: a good diet, vitamins, an active lifestyle, and forgiveness. “Young people are taught to hate in other religions when they ought to be taught to love,” she says. “Anti-Semitism is so prevalent again, it will not surprise me if there’s another Holocaust.”
Lefeber was 9 when Adolf Hitler embarked on his rise to power. Jews across Germany were forced off the streets and out of schools. Lefeber was allowed to stay enrolled because she was the daughter of a German World War I soldier.
But the tide eventually turned. In 1938, just before Kristallnacht—two days of mass attacks and atrocities directed at Jews in Nazi Germany and Austria—her parents fled to Palestine. Lefeber didn’t leave Germany with them. She remained in Berlin, a nurse in a hospital where prominent Nazis were treated during World War II. She tried to escape one day through the morgue’s egress, but a Nazi caught her. “I was trembling,” she recalls.
Eight years would pass until she saw her parents again. By then, she’d become a ship’s nurse for the U.S. Coast Guard. “They were glad that I wanted to go to America,” recalls Lefeber. “If I hadn’t met a random woman at a party who gave me an affidavit two years later, I wouldn’t have been here. I would’ve been in Auschwitz.”
Her brother, Gerhard, suffered two personal attacks by Nazis, one resulting in a collapsed lung. He was conscripted into the army in the War of Independence between Arabs and Israelis. He and two others survived an attack on their battalion, but a shot to his temple left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lefeber gave him an affidavit to come to the United States, but once here, he tried to kill her and her family in a dispute over money. “One day he came and had an ax,” she says.
They hid from him until he went back overseas, where he died after 20 years in a military asylum in northern Israel. “He was once the joy of my parents,” she says. “I never saw him again after he left.”
Lefeber among her art//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
For Frieda Lefeber, art arrived unexpectedly. “I never thought I’d have talent to that extent,” she says.
Lefeber is referring to the talent of her brother, Gerhard. During what she calls “Hitler time,” one of his pieces was featured in a museum in Berlin, a rarity for a Jew. He created an aquarium with fish crafted from chips of paper.
Lefeber’s first work—made 55 years ago—was of her “little” daughter, Hope. The piece took just two hours to do, and she was more concerned with the paint left under her fingernails and what that meant to her electrolysis practice.
Once on the Main Line, an art teacher at her apartment complex in Wynnewood told her she had talent, and Lefeber signed up for her first course. She later learned about an opportunity for nontraditional students at Rosemont College.
“She came to me in her 70s,” says her instructor and now friend, Pat Nugent, an associate professor of studio art at the college. “With the older people, I tell them, ‘This is not a grandmothers’ club, nor will you be doing paintings of your grandchildren. You’ll be a regular student and paint from life—real life—to encourage your imagination.’ Frieda said, ‘That’s OK.’ She’s always been so hungry for learning more, and that’s held through up to today. Part of her energy is her curiosity.”
Even with three days a week at Rosemont, Lefeber was still looking to fill her time. She decided to take evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her first portfolio presentation for admission was rejected. With Nugent’s help, she applied again and was accepted at age 79. “I had to be in front of my easel at 8:30 a.m. If not, then the teachers were insulted,” says Lefeber. “Four days a week for four years, I drove my car down the Schuylkill Expressway and was there at 8:30 on the dot.”
She admits to sleeping through the artt history courses, so she left the academy in 1998 with a four-year certificate in painting—not a bachelor’s degree—as one of its oldest graduates. She was 83.
Her fourth-year solo exhibit of 19 paintings resulted in 14 sales, paying for her final year’s tuition. Since graduating, Lefeber has painted and studied in Russia, Italy, Germany, France and the U.S., including at the Barnes Foundation. She’s never addressed her pain through her impressionistic landscapes and portraits. “I’d like to forget about the Holocaust and the human trend to hate,” she says.
Fonda Hartman of Bala Cynwyd, 75, once a fan and now a friend and fellow artist, painted in Italy with Lefeber, who was 95 at the time. Hartman had read Frieda’s Journey, Lefeber’s self-published 2003 autobiography, then took a class she taught in memoir writing. “Her strength of will is incredible to me, despite so many challenges,” Hartman says. “All revere her, and what art has done for her is open another venue of interest. It’s opened sections of her brain that she never used. Her work is unbelievable.”
Lefeber had a three-week gallery show at Rosemont that began a week before her 100th birthday in March. Nugent coordinated it. Some 200 attended the opening. “When I paint, I forget about myself,” Lefeber says. “I live in a dream world. There are no inhibitions.”
After two bouts of pneumonia kept her away from her easel last year, Lefeber’s transformation has been admirable, Nugent says. “It’s her don’t-sit-on-the-sofa-and-whine but get-up-and-do-things attitude,” she says. “I don’t think I could keep her schedule. I asked her once why she packs each day, and she said she didn’t want to get Alzheimer’s. I said, ‘It couldn’t find you.’”
She’s not reluctant to try anything—even sign up for a recent Apple class so she can better use her smartphone. “She’s an initiator. She’s a treasure,” says Nugent.
About 150 guests attended a dinner dance organized by Hope in Center City for Lefeber’s 100th birthday. “She’s a party girl,” Lefeber says of her only child, who’s a criminal defense attorney. “She drags me along. She still buys me high-heel shoes.”
Lefeber is also considering an addendum to her memoir. “It was a different world,” she says, looking down at the picture of her 33-year-old self on the cover. “So how do I want to be remembered? I was never lazy. I tried to fill every day with something meaningful. I couldn’t stand boredom. Once people retire, I think they try to do nothing, and that’s detrimental. When I can’t do anything, I get the blues. I have to have a full day”—including a session at Curves and twice-a-day walks with the house dog, Lucy—“I haven’t seen the end yet,” she says.
Who knows what’s possible? Her maternal great-great-grandfather lived to be 114.