Long-awaited restitution check fuels day-school building drive

A couple's recent donation of $50,000 in German restitution funds to their grandchildren's day school has triggered an outpouring of like-minded generosity.

Liz and Henry Lehmann of Baltimore bestowed their gift to the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School in Palo Alto. Their son Leonard Lehmann, 43, and wife Vivian, who live in Palo Alto, have two children at the day school and their third child starts there in the fall.

Laura Lauder of Atherton, head of the school's campaign to raise $6.5 million for new construction and expansion, said since news of the large donation hit the local press, "We've had a wonderful response." Several more donations have come in, and she has been contacted by another couple who are also interested in donating German restitution funds.

"After learning we would be compensated by the German government, we both decided the money had to be given to benefit the Jewish people," said Henry Lehmann. The funds "will be used to support building projects for Jewish day schools…that our grandchildren attend." Besides the Mid-Peninsula school, the couple is donating to Jewish schools in Waltham, Mass., and Baltimore.

"Day-school education is the key to Jewish survival in the United States. We are proud that each of our 14 grandchildren attends a Jewish day school. We are committed to supporting the establishment and sustenance of such schools," said Lehmann.

When the Lehmanns resided in the Bay Area, Henry served as treasurer of the day school for its first five years. Liz was acting principal in 1994 and taught in the school the following year.

"Nazi Germany tried to destroy all Jewish institutions but they didn't succeed," said Lehmann. "It is up to us, the Jewish community, to maintain support of these institutions,"

Lehmann's grandfather, a learned member of the Orthodox community of Leipzig, Germany, started an egg wholesale business that was later taken over by Henry's father. When the Nazis seized power, the Lehmanns were forced to sell the business for virtually nothing.

"The Nazis stole our store and tried to exterminate the Jewish people," he said. "Fortunately, my parents, my brother and I were able to leave, and after short sojourns in France and Brazil, settled in the U.S."

The family arrived in New Orleans in 1941. They had very little money, and both Henry and his brother received scholarships to attend Tulane University.

Lehmann became an engineer, working for General Electric for 38 years. Later, while he and his wife lived in the Bay Area, he served as chief executive officer of GreenSpring Computers in Menlo Park.

Following the 1989 reunification of Germany, the German government was willing to hear claims by refugees from the former East Germany. Late in 1997, the Lehmanns were informed by their German attorney that compensation for the forced sale would be paid in March 1998.

"I cannot think of a better use of my grandfather's money than to show that even though the Nazis killed 6 million of us, they did not exterminate our whole people, and that Jewish education is thriving and expanding," Lehmann said.

The day school has already raised $4.5 million — more than two-thirds of which has come from Jews in the community who are not affiliated with the school, according to Lauder. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation has donated $1 million.

"Since reporting of the Lehmanns' contribution, others in the community have called to say they have been inspired by the gift and plan to follow the Lehmann's lead," Lauder said.

To honor the Lehmann's gift, the school will "design an engraved plaque on a bench where people sitting there will surely feel the enormous power of the defiance of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews," she said.

The day school, founded in 1990, is a community-based nonprofit school for kindergarten through fifth grades. With the new building, grades six, seven and eight will be added. Construction is set to begin in the summer and be completed by September 1999.