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Peter Gossels, who escaped the Holocaust and became a beacon of hope and optimism, dies at 89

A young Peter Gossels (right), raking leaves with his younger brother, Werner, in Berlin as boys.

Peter Gossels was a few weeks shy of turning 9 when his mother placed him and his 5-year-old brother on a train to flee Germany for France on July 3, 1939.

For two years she wrote letters to her sons as they hid in France from the Nazis and after they traveled to Massachusetts, where families in Brookline provided new homes. She had hoped to follow but, along with most of the boys’ relatives, she was killed in the Holocaust.

She ended her last letter by comforting young Peter. “Don’t be unhappy,” she wrote, “everything will be alright soon.”

That encouragement echoed through the next 78 years for Mr. Gossels, who was 89 when he died Oct. 25.


Though ever aware of the evil that threads through history, he was determined as a husband and father, as a lawyer and a Wayland town official, to help people live the wisdom of his mother’s words.

“Amazingly, until the end, Dad was an eternal optimist, always seeing the positive in any situation — and always believing that things would get better,” his daughter Lisa said in a eulogy.

And to the end, Mr. Gossels kept trying to make things better. For three decades, he was elected to serve as Wayland’s town moderator, and he was still practicing law when he died – he had planned to retire at the end of this year.

As town moderator, he wrote a set of regulations to help democracy proceed in a fair, orderly fashion. As a person of faith, he helped edit Jewish prayer books to incorporate inclusive, non-sexist language.

Along with practicing law, he had advocated for and helped guide legislation that created the Commonwealth’s pioneering no-fault auto insurance.

Throughout those efforts, and the time he spent as a husband and father, he insisted it was he who should be thankful for the chance to contribute.


“I sometimes stop to thank God for the generosity and good fortune that we have enjoyed,” he wrote in 1962, a sentiment that was a refrain in his decades of writings.

In the months before Mr. Gossels died, he completed editing a book of his mother’s letters. Characteristically modest, he devoted most of the brief author’s biographical note to describing his wife, Nancy — “a poet, artist and liturgist, who is our family’s loving soul.”

“He inspired people to be their best selves,” she said in an interview.

“As kids, and frankly as adults, we marveled at the seeming limitless capacity of his mind,” their other daughter, Amy, said in a eulogy. “His mind was like an encyclopedia.”

Mr. Gossels also wanted to ensure that his faith remained vital.

“He inspired us with his love of Judaism and his efforts to modernize Jewish liturgy, so that it would remain relevant, inclusive, and alive for all generations. So that, as Dad liked to say, ‘Hitler would not have the last laugh,’ ” his son, Daniel, who like his sisters lives in New York City, said in a eulogy.

Mr. Gossels “was not just someone with charisma,” Dr. Deborah Wexler, who was his physician, said in a eulogy.

“Here was a man of such profound grace that he transformed the environment around him,” she added. “His resilience — his relentlessly positive manner — was a force field that seemed to protect him from harm.”


In a 2017 speech in Natick to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mr. Gossels explained how he came to be C. Peter R. Gossels.

“I was born in Berlin, Germany, on Aug. 11, 1930, three years before Hitler came to power,” he said. “My father wanted to call me Claus, my mother preferred Peter, but they agreed on my Hebrew name, Reuven, which they Germanized into the name ‘Rolf,’ a name often given to German shepherd dogs.”

The older of two brothers, he was a son of Max Gossels and Charlotte Lewy, who divorced when Peter was young.

A lawyer, a judge, and a professor at the University of Berlin, Max lost his teaching job during the rise of Nazism. He left the country in 1939, and later settled in South America, after the Gestapo told him he would be arrested within days if he remained.

Charlotte stayed. She raised their sons in an apartment building the family owned and eventually secured visas from the French Embassy for Peter and Werner. She also protected them from daily danger.

“I remember the fear we felt when we were surrounded one day on the street by a threatening group of Hitler Youth with knives in their belts, and how our mother rushed out from our home to rescue us,” Mr. Gossels recalled in a speech at Brandeis University, 10 days before he died.

Upon leaving with Werner for France, the boys hid in places including the Chateau of Chabannes — an episode in their lives that inspired Lisa Gossels to co-direct the award-winning film “The Children of Chabannes.”


“Our mother, having made that unbelievably courageous decision to send us to safety, without being able to go herself, placed responsibility for our welfare squarely on Peter, who was not yet 9 years old,” Werner, who lives in Wayland, said in his eulogy. “Peter never put down that burden.”

From France, the boys eventually traveled to Brookline, where they lived with separate families until Peter’s hosts no longer had room, and he moved to Mattapan. Even that move was lucky, he’d later say. Mr. Gossels was then able to attend Boston Latin School, which led the way to graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

After law school, he served in the Army, in the intelligence section of the psychological warfare center at Fort Bragg, N.C., and went on to practice at the firms Sullivan & Worcester and Weston Patrick.

He met Nancy Tuber while both were working at a Jewish philanthropic organization. They were engaged 2 ½ weeks later and married in 1958.

They had “a beautiful marriage,” she said.

Peter and Nancy Gossels.

“I actually fell in love with his mind,” she recalled. “He had an amazing zest for life and learning. At the same time, he was extremely modest.”

In Judaism, Werner said in his eulogy, “the highest calling is to live a righteous life: to do the right thing, not because of reward or punishment, but to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. My brother, Peter, has lived a righteous life.”


A service has been held for Mr. Gossels, who in addition to his wife, three children, and brother leaves a granddaughter.

For many years, Mr. Gossels quietly wondered if his mother had somehow survived the Holocaust, though that hope was dashed when he visited Auschwitz and saw in the concentration camp’s records that the Nazis had killed her. But even in death she stayed in his life.

“I was always conscious that the soul of my mother was part of me and I would weep whenever I thought of her,” he said at Brandeis, days before his own death.

Still, her last-letter insistence that “everything will be alright” informed all that he did, and each of the lives he touched.

“He said, ‘My life has been a blessing,’’’ his wife said. “And that’s how he chose to look upon life.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at