Teacher who fled the Nazis with her children dies at 97

Though riding in a so-called "sealed" railroad car from Geneva through France, the trio faced the threat of inspections from Nazi soldiers who periodically carted off some of their fellow passengers. "My brother and I were too young to understand the implications of this," recalled Alexander's daughter, Corinna Lothar Metcalf. "But she knew the real danger."

Alexander's courage on that journey was one example of the determination and fortitude she demonstrated through a long and rich life. Alexander died May 28 in her Oakland home at the age of 97.

"She touched so many lives," her daughter said.

Born Anita Seligman in Frankfurt in 1904, she was the granddaughter of Henry Seligman, a banker who settled in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. He was a founder of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

"She was quite an extraordinary woman," Metcalf said of her mother, who earned a master's degree at the age of 65 and went to work as a teacher.

Twice widowed, Alexander traveled extensively, tutored students and entertained dinner guests until shortly before her death.

"Even into her 90s, she'd have dinner parties for 10 and 12 people," recalled her daughter, who lives in Washington, D.C. "She'd do the shopping, the cooking. She liked good wine, caviar, foie gras. She was very enthusiastic about everything."

Alexander's zest for life belied the hardships she had endured.

The daughter of a civil judge, Alexander was one of the first female students to attend the University of Seville. Her enrollment touched off great distress among the faculty, who pleaded with her not to come to class, Metcalf said. Her mother subsequently attended the University of Frankfurt.

In 1931, she married Hans Lothar, publisher of the liberal Jewish newspaper Die Frankfurter Zeitung. Shortly before the Nazis seized the newspaper in 1936, Lothar was sent to London on the pretense of serving there as a foreign correspondent. "There was no job there," said Metcalf of the ruse to move Lothar and his family to safety.

Two years later, Alexander returned to Germany to persuade her parents to leave. Though her father was reluctant to go, Alexander and her mother finally prevailed. Metcalf's grandparents visited relatives in San Francisco and then moved to Switzerland, thinking it would be a safe place to wait out the Nazi period.

Alexander visited her parents in Switzerland in the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war. Fearing gas attacks in London, she and her children remained with her parents. But in 1941, Hans Lothar warned his family from London that his work as an editor for a new German-language newspaper opposed to the Nazis would place them in danger. "He said at this point, 'go to America,'" recalled Metcalf.

Thus started Alexander's journey from Switzerland to Lisbon with Corinna, then 9, and younger brother, Nicholas, 7.

Though the passenger car was supposed to be sealed, "it wasn't really sealed," Metcalf said. A few times, German soldiers entered with lists of wanted people and removed some passengers from the car. Safely arriving at the Spanish border, Alexander arranged for the family to continue their journey by bus.

In Lisbon, the family managed to board the S.S. Exeter bound for New York. But upon their arrival in March 1941, Alexander was told that the United States would no longer accept their visitors' visas. Alexander convinced immigration officials to admit her family, arguing that if the visas were valid when issued, they should still be acceptable.

Joining her oldest brother, conductor Walter Herbert, in San Francisco, Alexander intended only to stay in the United States until the end of the war. "My mother, and brother and I were going to go back and join my father in London," Metcalf said. But in 1944, Lothar died and "we never went back."

In 1948, her mother married San Francisco physician Robert Alexander, who died in 1959. Five years later, her son Nicholas died of Hodgkin's disease at the age of 30. "She never got over that," Metcalf recalled.

In 1970, her mother earned a master's degree from San Francisco State University and began teaching special education at the Raskob Learning Institute at Oakland's Holy Names College. Metcalf described her mother as a gifted and patient teacher, who specialized in assisting children with dyslexia.

"She had a great influence on everyone she met," Metcalf said of her mother. "She was a very joyous person."