Opinion | Random Call Leads to Unexpected Friendship

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By Andy Gotlieb

During my second week on the job at the Exponent in 2016, I got what appeared to be an all-too-familiar phone call from an older reader cranky about something that had (or hadn’t) appeared in the paper.

I wasn’t able to discern what was troubling her and she pulled the “Do you know who I am?” card. I didn’t, which made things worse. Given that I was on deadline, I told her I would call her back the following week. She harrumphed about it, but agreed.

In the meantime, I did a little research — and was glad I did, because I realized I wasn’t talking to any ordinary person.

As promised, I called Lena Allen-Shore the following week. She was much more accommodating that day and simply said she had something important to tell me, but didn’t want to do so over the phone.

Intrigued, I visited her a few days later at her apartment complex. When the elevator door opened, there she was: Well into her 90s, probably 4-feet-10-inches tall and hunched over a walker, but eyes bright and sparkling. She motioned for me to follow her to her ground-floor office in the complex.

Once inside, she began talking.

Turns out she didn’t have anything specific to tell me, but I learned quickly that Lena was always on message. And that message was to never forget the Holocaust and its impact.

“I will never forget. The Holocaust is in me whatever I do,” she said at the time. “The Holocaust cannot be forgotten. The Jews had been killed before, but never like this.”

If you read the accompanying obituary on page 4, you’ll learn the details of her amazing life, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: After surviving the Holocaust by posing as a Christian, Lena moved to Canada and later Philadelphia, obtaining a Ph.D. in philosophy, teaching at Gratz College, and establishing a center to teach art, philosophy and history.

Oh yeah, she also wrote a baker’s dozen books of poetry and philosophy while maintaining long-term friendships with Pope John Paul II and Albert Schweitzer and even spending time as a cabaret singer.

I had expected to spend about 90 minutes talking to Lena, but three hours later, I was still there. And I was back the next week to follow up.

Even after my profile of her was published — she didn’t like that I made references to her age — I visited her from time to time.

We talked about the same kinds of things each time — weighty esoteric stuff like whether trees have souls — but it was never boring. She seemed to realize that I tend to think in concrete terms and encouraged me to become more abstract.

A couple times, she played the piano and sang for me, her voice still sweet, clear and unwavering.

And like any Jewish grandmother, she made sure I ate every time I was there, as she had her helper put out an elaborate spread of cake, cookies, fruit and tea.

Having lost both of my grandmothers a few years earlier, she became my surrogate grandmother. I gather she was a surrogate grandmother for many people: Every time I met her in the lobby, people walking into the building were quick with hugs and warm greetings when they saw her.

As warm as she could be, she never held back criticisms and repeatedly asked me why the Exponent wouldn’t publish poetry. I tried to explain how that didn’t fit in a newspaper format, but she was undeterred.

So, in her honor, here’s some of her poetry. This is the final passage of her cantata The Little Shoes, which was published in 1983 “in memory of all the children who perished during the war.”

In the museum of yesterday,

I saw the little shoes.

They were standing in the corner

The little shoes

The little shoes

Someone left them all alone

The little shoes

The little shoes

The crowd looked at them.

To whom belong

The little shoes?

To whom belong

The little shoes?

I heard the voice of the crowd

Resounding

In the world.

We ask the seas,

We ask the skies,

We ask the trees,

We ask the deserts,

We ask the cities of man

We ask the cities of God

To whom belong

The little shoes?

To whom belong

The little shoes

Answer us, answer us

Time,

Answer us, answer us

History

Answer us, answer us

The conscience of men,

The conscience

The conscience

The conscience.

Andy Gotlieb is the managing editor of the Jewish Exponent.