Gaby Lefer (left), Helen Witsenhausen (center) and Sue Oscar (right) at Witsenhausen’s New York City apartment
Photos by Ambika Singh
What does it take to maintain a three-way friendship for seventy-five years? For Gaby Simon Lefer, Sue Hess Oscar, and Helen Adler Witsenhausen, it involves a similar background, summer camp, and Barnard.
All three were born in Germany in February, 1932. Lefer and Oscar met in their baby carriages in the city of Mainz, where their parents were acquaintances, while Witsenhausen was from nearby Frankfurt.
These cities on the Rhine were home to Jews for close to 2,000 years. But with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, this home was destroyed for all Jews, including the families of Lefer, Oscar, and Witsenhausen when the girls were very young.
Lefer recalls, “My parents were beautifully established in Mainz.” That is, until the government forced her physician father’s patients to leave him, and he was imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement. “I have no clue why or for how long—I only learned about it when I was thirteen and had to write a school essay,” she says. “Like so many German Jews, my parents didn’t want to talk about those experiences.” The family arrived in the United States in 1936, where her father was able to set up a successful practice. “He, and we all, loved this country for its freedom, advantages, and possibilities.”
Witsenhausen’s family made it to London in 1939, arriving in the States on April 1, 1940. Her father, a doctor like Lefer’s, learned English and developed a thriving practice. (Both women’s mothers helped with their fathers’ practices.)
Oscar’s father, a lawyer, had been the director of a bank; the family fled to America by way of Switzerland, arriving in the United States in 1938. “Our similar backgrounds are definitely part of how we became friends,” she says, and the others nod.
Camp in the Catskills
In Oscar’s Upper East Side apartment, with the elegant china and the handsome Biedermeier furniture her grandparents brought from Germany, the three women tell their stories over tea, rugelach, and the very German delicacy of sour cherries in syrup. New Yorkers all, their sibling-like relationship is a ballet of crosstalk—they know each other’s stories as well as their own, and jump in constantly to add or correct details, with laughter and affection.
How did they meet?
After the baby carriages, for Lefer and Oscar, “it was Camp Pine Cone, a Jewish summer camp in the Catskills, and we were nine,” Lefer says.
Meanwhile, Oscar and Witsenhausen met at age twelve, when mutual friends of their mothers set them up on a “blind date, so to speak,” Witsenhausen recalls. “We got along well instantaneously. I took one look and decided we were going to be friends. Without knowing a thing about her, I took her to my favorite spot in the building—the roof—and we climbed all over the pipes and low brick walls. For some reason, my overprotective parents never questioned what I was doing up there. We went up, climbed around, and became friends. After that, we saw each other almost every week.”
During a polio scare in the ’40s, health officials advised parents to keep their children away from crowds. So at age twelve, the three started going to a summer camp in Maine—Inawood—where they spent eight weeks every year until they were fifteen, always in the same cabin.
Lefer remembers trying to look into Oscar’s diary. “She almost killed me!”
“Her handwriting was so awful,” says Witsenhausen. “How could you read it?”
Did they know then that they’d be friends forever? That “was centuries away!” Lefer exclaims. “We thought about now—and boys.”
Like all immigrants, the three girls learned to navigate a new world. Sometimes it wasn’t pleasant, since other kids seemed to believe that everyone from Germany loved Hitler. When Oscar was six, some neighborhood kids heard her and her brother speaking in German and asked if they were Jewish. They’d been taught back home never to admit this, so they said no. “The kids said if we weren’t Jewish, we must be Nazis—and they beat us up!”
“Our parents’ experience as refugees was much more traumatic than ours,” Witsenhausen notes. “They lost their jobs and family members; they were in concentration camps. The most important thing was that I had my parents—it didn’t matter so much where I was. I felt secure.”
“The three of us were fortunate,” says Lefer. “Our families got us out in time.”
Even in the 1940s and ’50s, when college was looked at as optional for many young women of their class, Lefer, Oscar, and Witsenhausen’s families supported their higher education—100 percent!, they agree emphatically. “I’d have gotten into trouble if I hadn’t gone to college,” Witsenhausen says.
Why Barnard? “It was the most prestigious school in the city,” Witsenhausen continues. “I loved New York and didn’t want to go anywhere else.” (Her father, however, liked the idea of her seeing another part of the state. So she spent two years at Alfred University in western New York before transferring to Barnard.)
Daughters of a friend of Lefer’s father had gone to Barnard and Mount Holyoke, so she applied to both. Barnard’s offer of a small scholarship clinched the deal.
Oscar, who wasn’t thrilled at the idea of attending an all-women’s college, “couldn’t turn it down, because it had such a great reputation.”
At Barnard, the three women thrived—Lefer and Oscar as commuter students, Witsenhausen on campus. “It felt very comfortable. I felt it was the place for me,” Witsenhausen says. “There were bright people but I knew I could hold my own. I had really good professors and interesting courses, a boyfriend and girlfriends. I was happy.”
“There was a sense of academic excellence,” Lefer says. “There were no silly people.” She adds, “Sue always had nice and good-looking boyfriends.”
“Gaby introduced a lot of those boyfriends,” Witsenhausen laughs.
Oscar backs this up: “Gaby couldn’t take two steps without someone greeting her. It took hours to walk across campus with her.” It’s no surprise, then, that today Lefer writes the Class Notes for this magazine, and, with Oscar, is helping to plan the Class of 1953’s 65th Reunion.
The Barnard Effect
Lefer studied art history and French, Witsenhausen government, and Oscar majored in European history, graduating magna cum laude, even though she “never studied,” the others say. “The demanding regime at Barnard prepared me to succeed in my postgraduate studies and in my career,” says Oscar, who lives with her husband of fifty-four years, is the mother of two, and the grandmother of four. “When I first job-hunted, my interviewers commented favorably on my Barnard degree and helped me obtain a challenging job in publishing. Later, when I ran my own film distribution company, I am sure that my Barnard background gave me the confidence to succeed.”
Witsenhausen established and managed the corporate library of a large publisher. She has a son and a daughter and three grandchildren. (Her husband died last year.) “Barnard affected my life by giving me an excellent education and, equally important, by teaching me how to find information on my own. The seriousness of the students, the general atmosphere of being in an excellent educational institution, certainly had a positive effect on me,” she reflects. “But I do feel that it was the encouragement of my parents that had the major effect on my life choices.”
Lefer, who taught, traveled, moved, married, had a son, divorced, and spent the bulk of her career working for an international advertising agency, agrees. “In my family, achievement was a big deal. There was no alternative!” she says. Barnard opened certain doors—she got an important early job through the Barnard placement office. “It was a combination of initial achievement before Barnard and then being with people who valued education.” she says.
The many refugee crises causing tremendous harm to people around the world today motivate the three to look back to their own early histories, especially to the importance of education for refugees who hope to integrate into cultures vastly different from their own. “Our parents’ educations made it possible for us to come here and thrive,” Lefer says. Though she feels helpless when thinking about today’s refugee crises, “education is always a help.”
Then there’s a pause in the conversation, as they try and fail to come up with a solution to a problem of global scale.
Friends for Life
Barnard remains an important strand in their decades-long friendship. “Even today,” Oscar notes, “we share Barnard friends and Barnard events. For example, we all belong to an alumnae film group that gets together weekly to go to the movies and then discuss the show over lunch.”
“Our friendship was already solid when we got to campus,” Lefer notes. Still, those formative years spent together in Morningside Heights gave them “a deep foundation and a special bond.” •