Senior life: A vintage view

I wondered, for too long, about my teacher’s past

by Len Lear
Posted 4/11/24

In 1960, I took a course in classical music. The professor was a very nice person and a wonderful teacher. I loved his class, but one thing troubled me.

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Senior life: A vintage view

I wondered, for too long, about my teacher’s past


When I was a teenager growing up in a West Oak Lane rowhouse, I was the most popular kid in the neighborhood. I liked to believe it was because of my scintillating personality, but the truth is that it was because of my record collection. 

My father was in the jukebox business, and whenever he took the 45 RPM records out of the machines because they were no longer popular, he would give them all to me. Thus, I had every single hit record from 1955 to 1960 – Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley. My friends, who could only afford to buy one or two records of their own,  would come to my house and listen to all the hits. So I loved early rock 'n' roll music – and still do.

My oldest brother, Bennett, was a passionate lover of classical music and had a collection of 78 RPM vinyl records of Beethoven symphonies, Mozart piano sonatas, and operas by Verdi and Puccini. So I developed a love for that as well. As a sophomore at Muhlenberg College in Allentown in 1960, I took a two-semester course in classical music with a professor named Dr. Ludwig Lenel, who was composer-in-residence and head of the music department.

Dr. Lenel was a very nice person and a wonderful teacher. I loved his class, but one thing troubled me. He had been born and raised in Germany and had a very prominent, guttural German accent. Remember, this was just 15 years after the defeat of Hitler, and Lenel, who was born in 1914, would have been about 25 at the beginning of World War II.

I had read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany,” a New York Times number one best-seller in which the author, historian William Shirer, pointed out that more than half of the top Nazi officers who were convicted of mass murder at the infamous Nuremberg trials after World War II had doctorate degrees. So every time I heard his accent, I could not help thinking, “Could he have been a Nazi? Could he have played a role in the Holocaust?” 

So as much as I admired Dr. Lenel, the notion haunted me that he might have been a Nazi who committed unspeakable atrocities.

Then, one day in 2009, an elderly, sophisticated woman named Jane Lenel came into my office at the Local with copies of articles she had written for Marie Jones, a longtime former editor, and said she would like to write for me. Jane, also a music teacher and violinist who lived in Roxborough’s Cathedral Village, turned out to be a delight. She would eventually write many excellent human interest features for me. 

In early October of 2012, I received a phone call from a spokesperson for Cathedral Village who informed me that Jane Lenel had died on Sunday, Sept. 30. I was shocked because even though Jane was 88, she seemed to have boundless energy and never mentioned any medical problems to me.

In the course of writing her obituary, I spoke to one of her three children, Caroline, a family therapist and resident of Ardmore. She told me Jane had been diagnosed with colon cancer three months earlier.

Since obituaries include the names of immediate family members, Caroline told me that Jane's former husband was Ludwig Lenel, to whom she was married from 1950 to 1970. I was almost in shock because I had never made the connection between the two Lenels. If I had only known that he was Jane's former husband, I would have loved to tell her how much I enjoyed his classes.

I was afraid to ask Caroline about my suspicion that Dr. Lenel, who died in 2002 at age 87, might have been a Nazi. But when I asked about his background, she said, “My parents' divorce was amicable, and they remained friends until the end of his life. Both of them were wonderful, incredible people. 

“They met in 1949 at a summer music festival at Oberlin College in Ohio, where Ludwig was a conservatory professor,” she continued. “Ludwig was born in Germany, but his father was Jewish, so even though they were not religious, he and his siblings fled Germany in 1939 as Jews were being rounded up and shipped to concentration camps.”

I did not mention it to Caroline, but I felt like a fool. 

Len Lear can be reached at