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Community in disbelief over mother-daughter murder-suicide

A grim discovery in a Pennsylvania motel room led Buffalo police to an unimaginable crime scene: an 85-year-old woman stabbed to death, apparently at the hands of her own daughter.

Hannah Lilien, 55, a well-liked former day care teacher, was found dead of multiple self-inflicted wounds after she missed the noon checkout time at Red Roof Inn Pittsburgh North.

Police said Hannah Lilien stabbed her mother, Shoshana Lilien, believed to be a Holocaust survivor, in their home on Cunard Road in North Buffalo.

She then drove more than 300 miles to Cranberry Township, 15 miles north of Pittsburgh, and checked into the motel where local police said she took her own life.

At about 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, after Hannah Lilien missed her checkout, a worker opened the door and found her dead, said Sgt. Chuck Mascellino, public information officer for the Cranberry Township Police. Several items belonging to Hannah Lilien were found in the motel room.

“One of the items indicated she may have harmed her mother in their shared residence in Buffalo,” Mascellino said. He declined to identify the item.

Police in Cranberry then contacted Buffalo police, who dispatched officers to “check the welfare” at the home located in the 100 block of Cunard Road.

At about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Buffalo police forced their way into the first-floor apartment and discovered Shoshana Lilien’s body, said Michael DeGeorge, Buffalo police spokesman.

Shoshana Lilien was a widow. Her husband, Max, who was Hannah’s father, died in 2009. A death notice identified him as a Holocaust survivor.

The horrifying events didn’t make sense to the people who knew Hannah Lilien through the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue facility, where she had worked for 15 years as a teacher in the Early Childhood Center. She had resigned in 2013, apparently to take care of her ailing mother.

She taught toddlers, called Tatelas in the program, and made a difference in the lives of many young children and their families, according to an administrator at the center.

“She was greatly loved,” said Barbara Stone Reden, director of the JCC’s Early Childhood Center.

“She touched the lives of many young children and their families. And staff too.”

Hannah Lilien also served as a mentor to many new teachers in the program.

“She was a wonderful teacher and a loving person,” Reden said.

Hannah Lilien, who had been taking care of both her parents for many years, told people at the JCC that both of her parents were survivors of the Holocaust, according to those who worked with her.

Shoshana Lilien was hospitalized in December, they said.

Matthew Faso of Buffalo recalled how Hannah Lilien had taken great care of his son four years ago when the youngster was in the day care center.

“She was a wonderful teacher,” he said. “Me and my family are extremely saddened. We’re totally surprised that this could have happened. Obviously, we never would have thought that she would have been involved in something like this.”

Hannah Lilien was their son’s first baby sitter, Faso said.

“We had never had a baby sitter and my sister was getting married. … We hired her to come and help him and stay with him during the day while we were getting ready.”

Faso said even though they hadn’t asked her to, Hannah Lilien stayed with their son during the ceremony.

Shayna Raichilson-Zadok, whose children were students of Hannah Lilien’s and who also worked with her at the JCC, struggled to reconcile her memories of a kind and caring woman with what happened.

“She was a very loving, caring and compassionate person,” she said. “Someone who always thought about the children’s needs and loved them as if they were her own.”

She recounted how Hannah Lilien would call out to her if she saw her underdressed for the cold weather outside.

“Where’s your hat? Button your jacket,” she would say.

And years after her children were out of day care, Raichilson-Zadok said she would run into Hannah Lilien and the teacher would remember funny stories about her children.

“If you don’t know this person and you hear a 55-year-old woman killed her 85-year-old woman and then killed herself you’d say: ‘This person is a monster.’ But the fact is she was not a monster,” Raichilson-Zadok said. “Something had to have happened that made her snap.

“But this one thing shouldn’t define her existence,” she continued. “She was not a horrible person. Anybody who ever came in contact with her knows that. Nobody will ever know what happened except for the two people who are no longer with us.”

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com