- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

If living well is the best revenge, Anita Alexander really got in der Fuehrer's face.

You will not have heard of my friend Anita. She lived a very private life, but a very rich one, almost to the day she died earlier this week, with her daughter at her bedside, at the fine old age of 97. Before she took to her final bed at her home in Oakland, Calif., two months ago, she regularly conducted her salon, entertaining friends at dinner for eight, doing all the cooking and cleaning herself.

Her life reflected the grit and wit of her century, lived amongst "the greatest generation" swiftly fading now into history, men and women with no concept of victimhood, who looked the evil in the world squarely in the eye and were not afraid to spit in it.

Anita was a Holocaust survivor, a teacher well into her 10th decade, the daughter of a family prominent in both Germany and the United States. She was the granddaughter of Henry Seligman, one of the founding brothers of the famous New York and San Francisco banking firm. Early on in a friendship spanning 30 years I forgave her for her grandfather's having arranged loans for the Yankees during the Civil War.

The opening line of "Gone With the Wind" might have applied to her: Scarlet O'Hara "was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm." When, at the end of World War I the British took over the family estate near Frankfurt, she was 14 and at once became a favorite tennis partner of the young officers quartered in a wing of the house. When her mother found out she stopped the fraternization. "When the occupation ends," she said, "we will invite the officers back as our guests." She was the first woman to attend classes at the University of Seville. The young gents had never seen a girl in the classroom before, and so prolonged was the cheering and merriment that one professor told her: "Miss Seligman, I will give you any documentation of studies you wish if you promise never to return to my class." She could flirt at 97 with the style she exhibited at 19.

Her first husband Hans Lothar she was widowed twice was the publisher of Germany's influential liberal newspaper Die Frankfurter Zeitung until it was seized by the Nazis in 1936. When the owners discovered his name on a Gestapo pick-up list, he was sent to a fictitious posting in London. He became the editor of a newspaper for the expatriate Germans.

Anita returned to Germany in 1938 to convince her father, a judge in the civil courts, and her mother that Germany was no longer safe. They reluctantly fled, eventually to Switzerland, where Anita and their two small children joined them. Life seemed safe enough until 1941, when Mr. Lothar arranged passage for them on a "sealed" railway car.

Though the car was "sealed" for the trip across Vichy France, meaning that passengers would not be disturbed, Gestapo agents met the train at every stop with their lists of wanted Jews.

When the train stopped at the end of the line at the Spanish border, the passengers were put up in hotels and told to be at the station at 6 the next morning for further transportation. Anita smelled a mouse. She got the children, a girl 9 and a boy 7, up at 4 to be the first in line. There was only a small wood-burning bus. Slipping the driver a wad of pesos, she talked their way aboard and most of the other passengers were left standing at the curb. They made their way to Lisbon and then to San Francisco.

Her life in postwar America was never as grand as the prewar life she had left behind. She never saw her husband again; he died in London in 1944. Her son died when he was only 30. She was enormously grateful to America, as only an immigrant can be, and married again, to Robert Alexander, a San Francisco physician. When he died Anita was 55, and she returned to school for a master's degree, and became a teacher.

She had a gentle but unbending sense of ethics and a puckish sense of humor. When she was looking for a place to celebrate her 95th birthday, someone mordantly suggested Death Valley. The joke delighted her, and two dozen friends and relatives joined her for Christmas at a rustic resort in the valley. "At my age," she asked, "what place could be more appropriate?"

Just before she died, her granddaughter arrived to say goodbye. Anita shooed everyone out of the room for a private conversation. The granddaughter explained later: "She wanted to talk to me about the temptations of a woman entering her 40s." A woman of the world, to the end.


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