Susanne F. Spatz, 94; longtime volunteer chaired Newton Council on Aging

Susanne F. Spatz chaired Newton’s Council on Aging.
Susanne F. Spatz chaired Newton’s Council on Aging.

After fleeing Germany to escape anti-Semitism as the Nazis consolidated power in the mid-1930s, Susanne Florsheim Spatz found her way to Newton, where she made day-to-day life better for residents for six decades, including chairing the city’s Council on Aging in the 1990s.

“She took her public position to challenge people to step up, and she would say, ‘Now, what are you going to do?’ ” said Jayne Colino, director of Newton’s Department of Senior Services .

“And there was just an expectation of involvement. How could you ignore the need she had just articulated?”

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In 1991, Mrs. Spatz was among those honored by the Retired Senior Volunteer Program of Newton for volunteering at least 3,000 hours at nonprofit organizations.

Mrs. Spatz, whose health had been declining, died May 29 in Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham.

She was 94.

When she was a teenager, Mrs. Spatz was an accomplished breaststroke swimmer and had hoped to represent Germany in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

As the government placed more and more restrictions on Jews, though, her family sent her to the United States by way of England, telling local authorities they were sending her to finishing school abroad. Using her US visa, she went to New York to live with her sister’s family and then to California, where she worked as a nanny. She learned to speak English primarily while working.

After living for a time in the Washington, D.C., area she moved to Cambridge and settled in Newton in 1953.

Her parents, meanwhile, stayed in Europe, escaping initially to Amsterdam before they were sent to concentration camps. Her father died in the camps, but the cattle car transporting her mother to Auschwitz ran out of fuel and was liberated by troops from the Soviet Union.

“My mother would say she had terrible nightmares,” said Mrs. Spatz’s daughter, Lillian Astrachan of Newton.

Once in the Boston area, Susanne F. Florsheim met Herbert Spatz at a weeklong retreat, and then ran into him again through their jobs. She was working as a bookkeeper, and he was an accountant. They married in 1951.

Her family said she often attributed her bookkeeping skills to her Prussian roots, noting that culturally, she had been raised to do everything with precision.

Even the family’s history was meticulously tracked in a signature red notebook she kept close at hand.

Along with chairing the Newton Council on Aging, Mrs. Spatz helped secure funding for the Newton Senior Center, which opened in 1993 in what had been a shuttered city library.

The building includes art studio space, a games room, and a health maintenance suite.

“It was through her vision and engaging others in the advocacy that we ultimately did get that” Colino said of the center.

Mrs. Spatz “was the consummate spokesperson,” Colino recalled, and did not shy from speaking out about issues.

But Mrs. Spatz also could bring various people and groups together to accomplish tasks, friends and relatives said.

“If she thought anything needed to be changed, she went right to the top,” said Doris Lelchook of Newton, a longtime friend. “And if there was funding, she’d arrange to get it.”

Mrs. Spatz cared deeply about providing transportation for the elderly. She worked to set up a bus to take people to grocery stores, not just to shop, but so those who spent most of their time at home alone could socialize with other riders.

“Susanne influenced a lot of people’s lives,” Colino said. “She may never have known the people whose lives she influenced, but they are in abundance.”

In recent years, Mrs. Spatz began corresponding with a graduate student in her German hometown who was researching what had happened to the community’s Jews. As they wrote letters back and forth, the research allowed Mrs. Spatz to learn a great deal about how her extended family had fared.

Mrs. Spatz also donated material, including photos of sporting events in the 1930s and membership cards she had as a child, to the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute, based in New York City, one of the largest collections of Jewish-
German historical documents.

Among her fondest memories from her youth, her family said, was spending hours at the Berlin Zoological Garden watching animals, especially the monkeys.

In the Boston area, her family said, she often contributed money to zoos and animal rescue organizations.

Her love of swimming persisted, too. Well into her 80s, she swam nearly daily in Crystal Lake in Newton during the warmer months.

Services have been held for Mrs. Spatz, who in addition to her husband and daughter leaves a grandson and granddaughter.

In addition to working with city agencies, Mrs. Spatz helped organize events at Temple Emanuel in Newton and Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, recruiting musical acts and speakers.

“She was very good at getting good programs,” Lelchook said.

If food was left over after an event, Mrs. Spatz made sure it was sent home with someone or was used to feed birds.

She also raised funds for the Traveling Meals of Newton and the city’s Adams Street Shul restoration, and she helped establish a playground, her family said.

“She was a very motivated person and if she saw a problem, she wanted to solve it,” her daughter said. “She was pretty determined to get it done.”