Greta Merchant passed away peacefully in Needham, Massachusetts, on August 10, 2018, surrounded by family and friends. She was 97 years old.
Greta was born on February 5, 1921, in Frankfurt, Germany, to Lili and Otto Aschaffenburg. Jewish by birth, her family had assimilated over generations. She grew up in a world of wealth and privilege. Her father was director and part-owner of a major international investment bank. Her mother was a patron of the arts, who held weekly soirées for the intelligentsia of Berlin.
From early childhood, Greta had a talent and love for acting, art, music, writing, and healing. However, due to the Holocaust, she was unable to fulfill her potential in these areas until many years later. To avoid the growing persecution of Jews in Germany, her parents arranged for her emigration to Oxford, England, in 1939 when Greta was 18.
It was a traumatic time in her young life. Due to wartime restrictions, she was able to find work only as a housekeeper and later in a munitions factory, where she lived in constant fear, due to the relentless bombings. She found solace in visiting art museums and listening to classical music.
Her brother, Hans, was sent to MIT just before the war. Her father died in 1943 from complications after surgery. Her mother, Lili, was in forced labor for two years, but when she discovered she was about to be deported to a concentration camp, she escaped and went into hiding in the Black Forest. Lili’s parents, however, were less fortunate and died in Theresienstadt.
In 1948 Greta was reunited with her mother and brother in New York City by the Red Cross. She chronicled her new life in America in a series of drawings. The following year she met and fell in love with Robert Savage through their shared love of Chopin and religious exploration. They married and had two daughters, Lenore and Claudia, while living on the Upper West Side, one block from Lili. In 1957 they separated and a few years later divorced amicably, remaining lifelong friends.
Greta reluctantly left the city she loved in 1957 and moved with her children to Concord, Massachusetts, to support her brother through a challenging time. She pursued her love of medicine by becoming an operating room technician in the local hospital. She also found a lasting spiritual home in Christian Science.
Through Hans she met the love of her life, John Merchant, an aerospace engineer, whom she married in 1962. The new family settled in Needham, where a third daughter, Sandra, was born. Greta endeared herself to the entire town through her love of people, compassionate and empathetic nature, boundless energy, and active engagement in civic and artistic pursuits. As one friend put it, she possessed the wisdom of the ancients, the sympathy of a saint, and the innocence of a child, all rolled into one.
She was passionate about alternative medicine and shared her expertise with anyone who sought her advice and help. She was always involved in creative projects: making puppets, drawings, and cartoons (often to bring comfort and joy to others); writing short stories, articles, and poems; and playing guitar, violin, harmonica, recorder, and piano. She also enjoyed all types of dancing.
Greta loved acting most of all. She performed with a number of community theater companies and puppet troupes. She also created and acted in a variety of films. In her eighties, she was in two major productions of the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square.
She did all this while working part-time at the Needham YMCA and the Stephen Palmer Center. In addition, she took care of her elderly mother, who lived with her for many years until Lili’s death at 96, at the same time opening her home and heart to all who reached out to her in need. Greta and John remained in their home for 55 years, until John passed on in March 2018, followed by his beloved wife five months later.
Greta was also predeceased by her brother, Hans Aschaffenburg; her nephew, Peter Aschaffenburg; and her first husband, Robert Savage. Greta is survived by three daughters, Lenore Parker (and her husband, Allen), Claudia Ruiz, and Sandra Rizkallah (and her husband, Tom Pugh); five grandchildren, Eric Ruiz, Mikki Pugh, Jessica Rizkallah, Liz Pugh, and Emma Martin; twelve great-grandchildren; her sister-in-law, Bette Aschaffenburg; her nephew and niece, David and Karen Aschaffenburg; her former sons-in-law Ken Martin, Pierre Rizkallah, and Francisco Ruiz; and countless adopted family members and friends.
Special thanks to Annet, Dennis, Gurdy, Marcia, Margaret, Mimi, Monique, Paul, Sasha, and Saul for their devoted care of Greta and John after their daughter, Sandra, and son-in-law, Tom, moved in to help them three years ago. We are also grateful for the compassionate care Greta received in her final hours from her ICU nurses, Jillian and Kerri.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, September 8, 2018, at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, 23 Dedham Avenue, Needham (http://uuneedham.org).
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Greta Merchant’s name to Plugged In Band Program, the non-profit co-founded and co-directed by Sandra and Tom, located at 40 Freeman Place, Needham, MA 02492 (www.pluggedinband.org). For many years Greta lovingly and enthusiastically supported the students and played her harmonica in their concerts.