Love, business and Holocaust bind unlikely couple in S.F.

The adulation pours from Sucher Shelley's lips like wine flows from a bottle at Purim.

"She speaks six languages. She has a basement full of books. She's not a minute without a pen. She's a very responsible person."

Shelley is talking about his wife, Lore, a Ph.D. in human and organization development whose latest compilation, "The Union Kommando in Auschwitz," has just been published. A description of the Auschwitz munitions factory through the eyes of its slave laborers, "Union" is one of five books edited by Lore Shelley that delve into the horrors of Auschwitz.

"I am not a scholar by nature," Sucher Shelley says. "She does nothing but study…everything."

Despite an obvious affection nurtured by a common experience as Holocaust survivors and a marriage of some 45 years, Lore and Sucher Shelley seem an unlikely couple.

He was the youngest of six children in a devout family of Gur Chassidim in Poland. To this day he remains deeply observant, praying twice daily at his synagogue, Adath Israel in San Francisco.

She was an only child in a liberal German Jewish family in which, she says, "we used to eat bread on Pesach and eat on Yom Kippur." These days, she attends synagogue much less frequently than her husband.

Shelves in the couple's sunny San Francisco dining room brim with the books he reads — the Torah, the Mishnah, the Gemara. Her study down the hall overflows with hundreds of books on the Holocaust as well as works by eminent psychologists and social scientists. She has several degrees. He, though a learned man, never received a formal education.

"We're exactly what we call opposites," Sucher Shelley says.

Watching this couple interact in their Sunset District home on a recent afternoon, it doesn't take long to see that.

Sucher Shelley, a slight man with an ebullient smile, chats with the ease of a television talk-show host. Lore is a sturdy woman with a humble, reserved air, one who chooses her words with great care.

It takes little prodding to evoke heart-wrenching stories of his Holocaust experiences. Lore, a former board member of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, seems more comfortable speaking of the Shoah in more academic terms; her scholarship on the subject, she says, has been motivated by a fervent drive to counter those who deny the Holocaust's truths.

Still, it is clear that profound bonds transcend such differences. Both Sucher and Lore Shelley — now in their early 70s — survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps. At the end of the war, she endured one of the Nazis infamous death marches, and he was liberated from Ebensee too ill and emaciated to stand. Both were the sole members of their families to come out of the Holocaust alive.

"In that sense, I think they understand one another better than anyone else could ever understand them, in spite of the fact that they come from very different worlds," says their only child, 31-year-old Gabriella Shelley, a Harvard-Yale educated psychiatrist.

There are other powerful links between this husband and wife. They share a deep passion for Israel and travel there often; he makes annual visits to study in a yeshiva for married men.

For much of the couple's marriage, they have also split the labor at the West Coast Swiss Watch Co., the watch sales and repair shop they own on Second Street in downtown San Francisco. It is here that the synchronicity of the Shelleys' union becomes particularly apparent.

As Lore sits quietly in the back of the shop tabulating receipts on an old adding machine, her nattily suited husband works the front, chatting with customers about the ins and outs of their days between charming them with jokes and bits of watch trivia. Every so often, he turns to ask his wife a question, always addressing her as Schatze, German for "dear."

"My mother's the organizer, my father's the business force," Gabriella says, "although when it comes to big business decisions, he's never made one without her. It's the best business partnership that ever existed."

Sucher Shelley finds another way to describe what keeps the business duo humming so smoothly. "I am not good for the books, she is not good for the sale," he says. "This is what heaven puts together."

The store is a heaven of its own kind — that rare, Old-World operation where the customer comes first and work is done by hand. The store exudes homeyness, from the faded signs that hang on its walls to the Shelleys' gray poodle Mickey, who nestles in a display of old silver watches near the shop's front window.

As long as their health permits, the Shelleys hope to keep their store open. Although they long made a profit from the business, they now lose up to $4,000 a month. But they can't imagine life without it.

"It keeps me alive," Sucher Shelley says of the shop, whose losses are countered by returns from downtown real-estate investments. "I like people very, very much. I couldn't live without them."

From the stories the watchman tells, it appears customers also seem to relish their contact with him. "I bring people up," he says in a thick Polish accent, leaning over the glass counter in his shop to emphasize his point. "How many times have people told me, `You made my day. You made my day.'"

But before he takes too much credit for the store, Sucher Shelley makes sure his wife gets her due. "Without her, it wouldn't last a day," he says. "She knows everything from A to Z."

The Shelleys met several years after the end of the war in a rehabilitation center in Italy, where they were both recovering from severe war-related illnesses that included tuberculosis. They married in Rome in 1951, and in 1956 moved to New York.

There, while Sucher Shelley got his start in the watch manufacturing business, Lore Shelley began advance study in psychology at the New School for Social Research, from which she received a master's degree in psychology in 1958. She earned another master's degree, in social work, from San Francisco State University in 1978.

In between the two degrees came a move to San Francisco, where the Shelleys established their watch business and watched it mushroom. In 1965, on Lore Shelley's 41st birthday, Gabriella was born.

During a break from work at a Brooklyn hospital, Gabriella speaks of her parents both from the perspective of one who has studied the human mind and as a child of Holocaust survivors.

"I can't say it hasn't been painful, in the sense that I can never make up to them what they've lost and the pain they've suffered," she says. "And there will always be a gaping hole there…I've never had the chance to meet people who are my family members."

Such loss, however, has not dimmed Gabriella's sense that she is privileged to have been raised by Lore and Sucher Shelley.

From them, Gabriella says, she has learned compassion, determination and an unwavering sense of morality. And she has a sense of identity that she believes is stronger than most.

"I am very clear about how important Israel is to me and Judaism is to me," she says. "I think it's pointless and very unhealthy to lose sight of who you are."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.