Adella "Alli" Russel, a retired Pikesville travel agent who made her way out of Nazi-controlled Germany in the 1930s, died of congestive heart failure Sept. 3 at the North Oaks retirement community. She was 96.
Born Adella Zipser in Leipzig, Germany, she was the daughter of a wholesaler of milk and dairy products. She received a grade school education and worked in a department store while in her teens. A practicing Jew, she and her family came under increasing scrutiny by Nazi authorities.
For decades, she kept secret what happened to her as the German government persecuted Jews. In recent years, she told her story to a granddaughter who was preparing a family biography.
In his eulogy, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg said, "For 96 years she personified the history of the Jewish people, from Leipzig to Pikesville, from struggling to supporting. ... She was an outstanding Jewish matriarch."
He called her "a strong woman, smart, upright and forthright." He also acknowledged she was "a tough cookie."
On Kristallnacht, in November 1938, she witnessed the destruction of her family's business by Nazi paramilitary party members and sympathizers.
She revealed that her mother, then a widow, was taken away by the Gestapo and sent to Poland. She never again saw her, and she assumed she perished in the Holocaust. No trace of her mother has been found, despite efforts to track her.
Mrs. Russel sought and received a visa to travel to England, where she found work as a nanny. Her fiancee, Heinz Reifenberg, initially had trouble leaving Germany and considered moving to Shanghai. British authorities, however, granted him a visa and he went on to serve in World War II in the British army.
Military authorities advised him to change his name, to help hide his identity should he be taken prisoner,. He chose Ronnie Harold Russel. The couple married in England and moved to Baltimore in 1947.
They initially opened an installment sales business, selling furniture and clothing out of their home on Fairlawn Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. They used $4,000 she had saved while working in England to start the business.
"She was always an independent woman," said her son, Robert Russel of Baltimore. "She was really a feminist before her time."
In 1956, her husband opened a used-car business, R&H Motor Cars, at Belair Road and Brendan Avenue. After her husband's death in 1968, she became chairman of the board of the auto firm, although she never worked there. Her sons took over the business and expanded it. The business now includes an Owings Mills Mercedes-Benz dealership as well as two Toyota dealerships and Volkswagen, Subaru and Mazda agencies. She retired about 20 years ago.
Family members said Mrs. Russel believed in hard work.
She volunteered extensively — for the Red Cross, Sinai Hospital, the Baltimore Hebrew University's library, the Women's American ORT, Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland and the Baltimore Museum of Art, among others.
In the 1970s, she joined Travel Destinations, a Pikesville agency. She learned the travel industry and worked diligently for her clients, colleagues said. Within the family, she was known as a shrewd investor and businesswoman.
"She knew a lot of people, picked up on things quickly and developed a following," said Allen R. Cohen, a former co-worker who lives in Towson. "She was a strong and tenacious worker. She was strictly old-school in her manner, and when she made a commission, she said she always gave a portion of it to her charities. I never forgot her for that."
Family members said she gave to The Associated Jewish charities and supported the Beth Tfiloh School and Congregation, where she was a member.
"She was generous in her philanthropy," said Rabbi Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh. "She could practice tough love and knew that a penny saved was a penny earned."
Mrs. Russel gave a scholarship to the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.
"She was an elegant, dignified lady," said Zipora Schorr, an official of the school. "She went through a lot and tried very hard to have others lead a life of dignity. She loved children."
Services were held Sept. 5 at Sol Levinson and Bros.
In addition to her son, survivors include five grandchildren and a step-grandson; and 12 great-grandchildren.
A son, F. Steven Russel, died in July.