”When we stopped to think about our lives, we realized that we had no regrets. Sure, there were tough times, but we never felt that we would have lived any other way.”
Dr. Ilse Leeser had this conversation with her husband Ralph before his death in 2001. Not flooded with “shoulds” or “coulds”, the couple shared a sense of satisfaction that both individually and together, they had lived purposeful and productive lives.
Considering the nightmare that defined her first 20 years, Ilse’s sense of fulfillment is particularly poignant.
Ilse was born in Dortmund Germany in 1928. She was just 10 in November 1938, when Germans took to the streets to violently put the Jewish community on notice. Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass) was one of the defining memories of her youth. Synagogues were burned. Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed. Her father and his two brothers were among the thousands who were sent to camps. The Final Solution, the Nazi’s blueprint for annihilating the Jewish population, was not yet in place so the men were released within a few weeks. Ilse recalls that the entire family gathered around the dining room table to have a celebratory meal. Ilse particularly remembers her father’s and uncles’ newly shaved heads. They were no longer prisoners, but they returned home with visual reminders of captivity and an uncertain future.
In the ominous days that followed, Ilse’s family quickly mobilized, taking all the necessary steps to be eligible for immigration to the US. They had the required affidavit, sponsorship, and funds.
Eager to leave Germany, the family went to Holland to await approval from the US. Sadly, the American government was unsympathetic to the plight of the Jews. The process of approving visas moved in slow motion.
When the Nazis occupied Holland in May 1940, they began to mandate onerous restrictions on the Jewish community’s daily life. Jews were not allowed to own businesses, attend school, or even sit in the local parks. They were required to sew a yellow star on their clothing so that everyone could identify them as the enemy.
Before being forced from their homes into overcrowded, restricted areas, Jews were ordered to leave detailed lists of their possessions for the convenience of the next residents – the Gestapo. Ilse recalls that her father conscientiously complied, listing everything that they would soon leave behind. With sadness, she remarks:
“My father was the most honest man on earth.”
Ilse’s family knew that the situation was dire. They made contact with the Underground, which was secretly placing Jews in non-Jewish households. In 1943, despite desperate efforts to keep the family together, her parents decided that Ilse and her sister Eva would be safer in Utrecht Holland with a young couple, Betsie and Kees Verhoevens. Separating was difficult, but Ilse held on to the hope that the family would soon be reunited.
Eva quickly joined the Resistance. the plan for Ilse was to stay with the Verhoevens for two weeks before heading to another household. Fortunately, the couple opened their doors – and their hearts – to Ilse, who remained a part of their household for much of the war.
Ilse left the Verhoevens whenever there was a sense of imminent danger. She did not find a similar level of empathy or kindness at each safehouse. For a single, young woman, the years were fraught with angst and loneliness.
Like so many families during the Holocaust, Ilse’s family was torn apart. They had to manage the uncertainty of their own fate while endlessly worrying about the whereabouts of others. Sadly, Ilse and Eva’s parents never arrived in Utrecht. After the war, the sisters discovered the dreaded reality that many members of their family, including their mother and father, had perished.
In 1947, using the immigration paperwork that had been meticulously gathered by their parents years before, Ilse and Eva finally move to America. Their boat arrived in New York City on 4/7/47.
Ilse lived in the city with an aunt and uncle. She had two immediate priorities: to complete her education and to attempt to recoup “the young life I never had.”
She had her hopes set on attending medical school, but another relative dissuaded her.
“He said, ‘You’re a refugee…a female…a Jew. Medical schools won’t accept you.’ He was very kind and very smart. He didn’t want me to waste time on something that was not possible.”
He urged Ilse to consider nursing. Initially, she was rejected because of her limited English and lack of funds. But, Ilse was not deterred. With a smile, she states the obvious:
“I don’t give up easily!”
Finally, she was accepted at Beth Israel Hospital’s nursing program in New York City. She entered the rigorous three-year training, launching a career as a nurse practitioner that extended six decades.
In 1949, Ilse met her future husband Ralph, whose intellect and drive matched her own. At the time that they met, he lived on his family’s chicken farm in south Jersey, and drove weekly to customers in New York City.
“We met because he was my egg man!”
Ralph juggled work and education. At night, through the G.I. bill, he earned his Bachelor’s degree at New York University. His went on to earn his law degree at Brooklyn College before embarking on a rewarding career in the insurance business.
Marriage and motherhood were stabilizers for Ilse. She found that she could quiet the memories of her difficult past and focus on the future. The Leesers raised their three children in Closter New Jersey where Ilse set out to offer her kids a childhood that she herself had longed for: one filled with opportunity, encouragement, and stability
Through the years, Ilse continued to pursue her career and extend her education. She earned two Masters degrees from Columbia: one in Public Health Nursing and another in Nursing Education. In 1988, at age 60, Ilse graduated from New York University with a doctorate in Nursing Research. She loved her career as a nurse practitioner and an educator and continued her work well into her 80s.
In 2002, after Ralph’s death, Ilse decided to leave New Jersey and move to Boston, where all three of her children and their families lived.
“Moving here was the right decision. I moved into an apartment that I love in a wonderful neighborhood. I’m sorry that Ralph never had the chance to live here too.”
Once in Boston, Ilse quickly found her stride. For several years, she taught nursing at Simmons College and Massachusetts General Hospital. At age 80, she was hired as a part-time nurse practitioner by Health Care for the Homeless. Two years later, she began volunteering at St. Anthony’s Shrine Wellness Center in downtown Boston.
Ilse has only recently faced the impact of aging. Several months ago, after noticing that her handwriting was increasingly shaky, she knew that she was experiencing the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Her mobility has become progressively compromised. She now uses a cane to maintain her balance. She no longer feels steady enough to walk unaccompanied to the local stores or nearby synagogue. She is hopeful that she will be more adventurous once winter has passed.
But Ilse is hardly sitting around, feeling stymied by her reduced mobility or at a loss for ways to fill her days.
She loves to cook and bake, and, with the bi-weekly assistance of an aide, she continues to spend time happily in the kitchen.
She is very adept technologically and enjoys her Facebook account. She uses the Internet to remain current on world events and to explore a full range of interests, including conversational Spanish.
She continues her love of teaching. As a trained Arthritis Foundation instructor, Ilse leads a loyal group of regulars in a weekly exercise class in the local senior center.
There are beautiful art pieces throughout Ilse’s lovely apartment, including quilts and pottery that she made. While she may not be able to continue these crafts, Ilse will certainly find ways to continue to express her creativity.
Ilse knows people in their 80s and 90s who don’t know how to fill their day. She finds this lack of interest and motivation baffling.
“I never look at the clock and wonder how I will spend the upcoming hours. I have more than enough to do.”