Meeting Alexander Imich, 111-years-old
Every week more and more recipients of the SAJR Online
newsletter submit amazing stories to share with our community of readers. Last
week Beth Sarafraz sent this: “I’m writing to offer you my story, ‘Meeting
Alexander Imich, 111-Years Old,’ published 2/28/2014 in The Jewish Press, for
reprinting in South African Jewish Report. The story (and link) are copied
below, as well as the update. You are more than welcome to reprint the story,
as long as you give credit to THE
JEWISH PRESS for original printing. Thank you, Be Well.”
Story and picture by: Beth Sarafraz
Rabbi Pinny Marozov, director of Chabad of Coney Island,
wanted to do a mitzvah. So when he found out there was a Jewish man living on
his own on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – a Jewish man who was about to
turn 111 years old – he decided to pay a visit.
The problem was that Alexander Imich, who has been
officially verified as the oldest man in America, second oldest in the world
(he was even congratulated by the New York State Senate upon his 110th birthday),
was not at home. Imich, who had taken a fall in his apartment and was not found
until the next day when a volunteer came to check on him, was in Roosevelt
Hospital in Manhattan. Rabbi Marozov, undeterred, visited him there and helped
him put on tefillin to pray. The rabbi planned a home visit to hang up a
mezuzah in Imich’s apartment, and agreed to bring me along.
Imich was born in 1903 in Poland, where he later earned
his Ph.D. in 1927, despite the best efforts of anti-Semitic professors to
sabotage his thesis. He embarked upon a journey that led him through two world
wars, the Holocaust, two years in a Russian labor camp near the White Sea, and
finally a new life in America in 1952 (with his wife, Wela, who passed away in
Published a book at 92
He worked as a chemist and respected scientist,
ultimately trying to prove to other mainstream scientists that the neshama
(soul) survives physical death, editing and publishing a book, Incredible Tales
of the Paranormal, (in 1995, at the age of 92), expounding on this theme and
earning high praise from Uri Geller, the celebrated illusionist, as “the most
fascinating and unusual book I have ever read in this field https://www.sajr.co.za/images/default-source/People/single/imich-alexander.jpg” />He suffered financial devastation after losing his life
savings in the stock market, and then the loneliness of one who has no
children, who has outlived all his peers and most family members, most of whom
perished in Nazi concentration camps. His grandniece, Karen Bogen, on his
wife’s side of the family says that Imich does have some living, blood
relatives: “He has a nephew, Jan Imich, who has children and grandchildren. A
few weeks ago, Jan visited with his son and grandson, so we had four
generations together. Jan and his extended family live in England.”
Alexander Imich’s 111th birthday took place on 4 February,
while he was in Roosevelt Hospital. A few days later, he returned home to the
same apartment he and Wela had rented in 1965 – weak, with failing eyesight due
to macular degeneration and practically deaf – as the hospital had lost both of
his hearing aids.
Imich was reportedly in a state of despair, no longer
being able to hear and communicate with others, expressing something he had
never said in all his 111 years – that he wanted to die, already. And then he
Nevertheless, we planned a bikur cholim visit to Imich.
At the time, we had no idea that Bogen, who lives in Rhode Island, was working
on getting the hospital to make good on the lost hearing aids and getting an
audiology team from Mt. Sinai Hospital to fit him for new ones.
Before visiting, I called the house expecting a volunteer
to answer the phone and confirm that it was okay for Imich to have visitors.
Instead, Imich himself answered: “Hello? Hello? I’m all alone here. Is anybody
coming to be with me?”
We almost cried with joy
He couldn’t hear anything I said in reply. This was so
alarming that I telephoned one of the regular volunteers, who told me that
there was a two-hour gap between when the morning volunteer leaves and the
afternoon volunteer arrives.
A Self Help organization volunteer was there by the time
Rabbi Mazorov and I arrived at the Esplanade apartment house. After being told
that Imich was so distraught he had stopped eating altogether, we almost cried
to see him happily munching on one of the huge freshly baked black and white
kosher cookies we brought him.
Imich, who is reportedly “not religious,” seemed to light
up even further when Rabbi Marozov helped him put on tefillin and then affixed
a mezuzah to his doorpost. We were surprised and touched to the core when
Imich, in a strong clear voice, recited the Shema prayer, which he apparently
knew by heart.
“Look at this,” said the rabbi. “This is bringing up a
spark from deep inside him. He’s coming back to life.”
We’d been told that Imich, after talking about not
wanting to live anymore, had stopped talking, sat in his chair and closed his
eyes in despair. What had changed? Did we dare to think it was our emergency
bikur cholim visit, the cookies, tefillin and mezuzah?
Taking his picture
He let us take many photographs. “People are always
taking my picture, but they never send them to me.” We assured him we would be back
with copies of the photos taken.
“He is scheduled to get fitted for new hearing aids
tomorrow,” the volunteer told us. The completed appliances will take some time
to be delivered, she said; maybe two weeks. We had to shout and repeat
ourselves in order for Imich to hear us, but communication was possible.
He asked me, “Do you know that I am the oldest man in the
United States and the second oldest in the world?” I told him yes. And again,
I asked him if he had a bar mitzvah. A what? “Bar
We originally thought when the rabbi visited him in the
hospital and helped him to put on tefillin, that it was a first in his life
experience – in essence, a bar mitzvah. We were mistaken. Imich remembered his
bar mitzvah in one of the synagogues in Czestochowa, Poland, where he was born
and grew up, but unfortunately, he said, all the photos and documentation were
lost. When the Nazis marched into Poland, the entire Jewish world was lost.
Imich and his wife Wela survived because they were deported to a Russian labor
camp instead of Auschwitz.
I told him my father’s mother came from Czestochowa, but
she referred to it as Chenstokhov. “That’s right,” he said, “Chenstokhov.”
Though attentive, interested and clearly wanting to
engage with us, Imich was straining to hear and each short exchange had to be
repeated slowly and loudly several times. With twinkling eyes, he pointed out,
“You imagine that I can converse with you like a normal person?” – a reference
to his near, but not total deafness.
I answered that I didn’t know what was normal, but I
would like to come back and visit again. “Can I come see you again?” He smiled
slightly and said yes “but bring the pictures!
What he has witnessed
We rose to leave and the rabbi said, “Good Shabbos!”
which was answered in kind, with an explanation. “I don’t know Yiddish,” he
said, “but I remember from my parents.” The memory breaking through was nearly
100 years old.
I looked back at the cluttered apartment – the walls
completely covered with his late wife’s paintings, the bookshelf with a copy of
Tales of the Paranormal, edited by Alexander Imich, Ph.D., the “Do Not
Resuscitate” letter hanging on the wall outside the kitchen, cards
commemorating his recent February 4 birthday, two computers that haven’t been
used in a year due to Imich’s failing eyesight and no television set anywhere
An 111-year-old blue-eyed man with paper thin skin
stretched tight across his bones sits on a recliner, his legs wrapped in a
blanket, facing a clock hanging on the wall, nestled there between the
paintings. It reminded me of the lyrics in the Jacques Brel song from a long
time ago, about old folks and their clocks: “It tick tocks oh so slow. It says
yes, it says no. It says ‘I’ll wait for you.’ The old, old silver clock that’s
hanging on the wall that waits for us all.”
In a speech he gave at the age of 99, Imich said: “In my
life, I have witnessed the development of flight, the automobile,
electrification of nations, the telephone, the radio and television, atomic
energy, the wonders of bioscientific medicine, computer technology, great
advances in our knowledge of the cosmos, men walking on the moon – the list
could go on and on.”
However, on answering the question (to the
satisfaction of modern scientists) on whether consciousness survives the death
of the physical body, he says, in his book, “Imagine for a moment how much
human life would change if this question were answered in the positive, how
much easier it would be to live through the pain and misery of our existence on
this planet, if we were sure these were only temporary ills.”