At 90, survivor cheers hospital patients
Liesel Spencer has been visiting Jewish hospital patients on a regular basis since 1994.
Photos by Alan Richman
Honor and service
LIESEL SPENCER and other volunteers will be honored at the Jewish Monmouth Cares conference on Sunday, Feb. 9, at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold. Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, the gathering, which is open to the public, will provide training for those who would like to be volunteer visitors to community members who are ill, in hospitals and nursing homes. For more information, contact Rabbi Michelle Pearlman, the federation’s director of community engagement, at 732-866-4300.
November 21, 2013
Although no one has kept a strict count, it is safe to say that Liesel Spencer, now 90, has paid well over 1,500 visits to Jewish patients at Bayshore Community Hospital during the past 19 years.
Spencer, a native of Germany and a Holocaust survivor, has become a stalwart volunteer at the 220-bed hospital, showing up virtually every week and bringing a single rose and a cheerful message for each of the patients she sees.
“Her dedication and regularity are positively amazing,” said Anna Esposito, the hospital chaplain. “And she always demonstrates extraordinary sensitivity in her interactions with the patients.”
“Volunteers like Liesel perform a very important function,” added Esposito. “Their visits help improve a patient’s quality of life, and may even contribute to his or her recovery.”
Spencer came to this mission after many years of hardship and loss. Born in 1923 in Wanne-Eickel Germany, now known as Herne, she was 10 when Hitler came to power.
By the time of Kristallnacht, in November of 1938, her father was in a concentration camp, and her mother registered both Liesel and her younger brother Werner for places on a Kindertransport, a rescue initiative organized in England after Kristallnacht. It was 1939 when they left for England, never to see their parents again. “I was lucky because I was 16, and that was the top age for eligibility,” Spencer said.
In England, she said, both siblings were raised by their relatives living in Nottingham, but by two families in separate homes.
In 1943, when Liesel was 20, she married another refugee, Erich Schulz from Vienna. Schulz was serving in the British Army under the name Eric Spencer. “He was told to change his name for his own protection if he ever became a prisoner,” Liesel explained. “He chose Spencer because he admired the actor Spencer Tracy.”
Eric had a brother living in the United States and a sister in Israel. In 1952, the couple chose to relocate here with their two children, a daughter born in 1944 and a son in 1946. Eric continued to work as a watchmaker and jewelry salesperson, as he had in postwar England; Liesel became a dressmaker, fashioning finished garments for private clients.
Today, said Spencer, she has six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, the oldest of whom is attending college in South Carolina.
Spencer said she and her husband moved to Aberdeen from New York City in 1975 in order to be closer to their son, then living in Matawan.
When her husband fell ill in the early 1990s, Spencer said, he had multiple hospital stays at Bayshore. “He always appreciated the visits of Temple Shalom’s rabbi, Henry Weiner, and following one of his stays, he told me, ‘We are joining this temple.’”
Shortly after Eric died in 1994, Spencer began her own career as a volunteer visitor. “Rabbi [Laurence] Malinger, who succeeded Rabbi Weiner, asked me to do it, and I was happy to help out,” she told NJJN in an interview.
Almost two decades later, Spencer is still going strong. “In all those years, there was only one patient who was unhappy to see me. All the rest were very appreciative and pleasant,” she said. “Some are in a mood to talk, others prefer to sit quietly, and some are asleep. I never wake them up.”
Esposito urged area residents of all faiths to contact their local clergy about doing similar work at the hospital. “I’ll get the message, and then I can set up an appointment with our Volunteer Services Department,” she said, adding that all volunteers receive training before they see patients.