Lena Allen-Shore may not believe she’s special, but she’s led an extraordinary life and touched a multitude of people since her 1944 liberation — and more than 35 years after moving to the Philadelphia area.
Well into her 90s, Holocaust survivor Dr. Lena Allen-Shore has an energy that belies her age — and she always remains on point with a message as timely now as ever.
“I will never forget. The Holocaust is in me whatever I do,” she said, pounding a table for effect. “The Holocaust cannot be forgotten. The Jews had been killed before, but never like this.
“I believe that God is in me, not because I’m special. I am nobody, but I feel different when I feel God.”
Allen-Shore may not believe she’s special, but she’s led an extraordinary life and touched a multitude of people since her 1944 liberation — and more than 35 years after moving to the Philadelphia area.
How many people can claim a nearly 20-year friendship with Pope John Paul II? How about one with famed theologian, philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer?
How many people write more than a dozen books, compose 100 songs and countless poems and write a cantata that was performed in Poland to commemorate Auschwitz’s liberation? And how many people at her age can continue to perform those songs, as her still-nimble fingers dance along the piano keys?
How many people obtain a Ph.D. in philosophy, serve as an adjunct professor at Gratz College and establish a center in her apartment building just off City Avenue that instructs more than 6,000 teachers about art, philosophy and history?
Documented in countless prior newspaper articles, those accomplishments — which would be impressive if they were the combined efforts of a dozen people — are important, but they’re still secondary to getting her message across more than 70 years later.
She noted that Jews being herded into gas chambers resorted to prayer — but not for pity.
“They didn’t ask why they suffered. If we want to remember the Holocaust, we have to remember them praying,” she said. “God was still with them.
“They were the Jews that became victims, but at the same time, they gave us lessons to understand each other — and to understand each other means every human being on the planet. We cannot divide ourselves. We should try to be together.”
While interviewing Allen-Shore is an intense experience — and she’s the one tending to ask the questions — the conversation isn’t always heavy, and she retains a sense of humor. At one point, she grumbled about having to use a walker and pushed it several feet down the hall to show she can still walk on her own.
And she’s got her role as Jewish grandmother (and great-grandmother) down pat, insisting that her guest partake in tea, chocolate cake, fruit and cookies, all the while encouraging the consumption of seconds.
Her philosophy background comes shining through, too.
“The world is just not here,” she said, sweeping her hand around the Lena Allen-Shore Center office on the ground floor of her apartment building, which is crammed with mementos of her life. “Did you ever think about it? Maybe the trees have a soul. Maybe the trees remember.”
Allen-Shore seems comfortable everywhere.
Back in her apartment, the years seem to fall away as Allen-Shore sits behind a shining white grand piano. The piano is symbolic to her.
“The first thing the Germans took was our piano,” she said, noting that her mother was a pianist who would play in their home, while her father, a lawyer and writer, would sing.
Allen-Shore’s eyes sparkle as she deftly works the keys. Her voice, which varies during regular conversation from a whisper to nearly a shout when she wants to emphasize a point, is gentle and sweet as she sings. Close your eyes, and you’d think a much younger woman is singing.
She’s using the songs to make her point. She’s always making a point.
One would think Allen-Shore would retain bitterness about the Holocaust, but her core message is rife with optimism and working to find the important things in life.
Pope John Paul II recognized that.
“This letter and your book, Building Bridges, which you gave me, was written ‘with heart,’” he wrote in one letter. “Thank you for seeing deep into my thoughts and understanding the intentions guiding my actions.”
Building Bridges may be her best-known work, but she considers another book, Ten Steps in the Land of Life: A Step by Step Guide to Meaning and Happiness in Life, her best.
Those steps include respecting life, recognizing the features of our own character, being aware of the beauty around us, realizing we are not alone and accepting the responsibility and joy of fulfillment. Other steps are being in touch with aspirations, being a member of the family of man, recognizing the role of art, continuing education and selection of a reason to live.
“You know that life is a challenge and you are ready to meet it, ready to walk to the crossroads and choose the road — your own road,” Allen-Shore wrote in the book while discussing the last step. “The 10th step emphasizes that every person is different, as different as the ‘why to live’ for every person.”
Those words were written in 1982. In 2016, Allen-Shore’s still pondering the meaning of life and even writing another book, although she’s not sure it will ever be completed.
Her optimistic outlook returns soon enough.
“Everything depends on us and the way we see people,” she said. “I love life.”
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