Sharp mind, survival skills keep 105-year-old vital

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At 105 years old, Ada Ohrnstiel has honed a no-nonsense approach to life: Wine and reading are good. Salt and gossip are bad.

"I am a person who doesn't talk much. I see much and keep my mouth shut," says Ohrnstiel, who will turn 106 on Feb. 16.

In honor of her birthday, the Palo Alto centenarian overcame her usual reticence by granting an interview to the Bulletin. Dressed casually but impeccably, she walked into her book-cluttered living room with the aid of a walker and regally took a seat, placing a dainty black purse by her side.

Ohrnstiel may not enjoy talking, but she can converse in five languages, including her native Italian. And her life as an elegant European, a refugee and a new American who took needle and thread to forge a living speaks volumes.

"I always loved to learn. In our family, we were all educated," she said. In fact, Ohrnstiel still walks from her tree-shaded yellow house each week to meet with her Italian club, a group of women who get together "not for gossip, but for the pleasure of speaking Italian."

Ohrnstiel left Trieste in 1940, escaping the Nazis and leaving behind a husband who was trapped in Europe. He is believed to have died in Auschwitz. All three of her siblings survived the war and remained in Europe, including a twin sister who lived to be almost 100.

"Twins are very close," says Ohrnstiel, who visited her own twin in Rome as often as she could. "I have nobody left in the world. Now, I need lots of peace," she said, glancing around her living room, her eyes skimming the many books and magazines that grace almost every surface.

When asked about her favorite books, she said simply, "I don't read stupid things."

On a small table is a copy of Hadassah magazine covering a dusty orange history text by Abba Eban.

For Ohrnstiel, who is from a wealthy, assimilated Italian family, such reading is her only connection to Judaism. Still, her interest marks just one of several drastic changes in her life after immigrating to Minneapolis to live with her daughter, Nora, and son-in-law, Norman Rogers.

Life in the grueling climate of Minnesota was a rough awakening for an upper-class European.

In her home country, Ohrnstiel was a sheltered housewife, married to a vice president of the state railroad. Here, for the first time in her life, she was forced to earn a living at the age of 50.

"She used her skill with a needle and became a gifted designer of hats, working in the finest salons" said Norman Rogers, now a retired physician living in Foster City. Nora, whom her mother calls "an angel on Earth," died in 1984, but Rogers continues to check in on his mother-in-law about once a week.

After about 15 years in Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland, Ohrnstiel settled in the Bay Area and began designing and selling clothing from her home.

"She supported herself all those years. Even though she never worked before [emigrating]," recalled Rogers.

Discussing American attitudes, Ohrnstiel is adamant that "people think too much about money." She is sure that what has helped her lead such a long, healthy life is "thinking about others. That's the most important thing. It's more important to have a conscience, to do nothing wrong."

After retiring, Ohrnstiel spent some time visiting sick neighbors in Palo Alto.

For the most part, Rogers said, she passed the days alone in her garden from early morning to dusk, raising "prize-winning roses."

In fact, it wasn't until last year, at age 105, that Ohrnstiel required home health care after taking a fall that almost broke her hip. She currently has a live-in aide, who helps her cook the salt-free food she eats with her nightly glass of wine and accompanies her for walks on sunny days.

Still, for the most part, Ohrnstiel lives an autonomous life, seeing friends; reading; and poring over old letters, papers and photographs for hours. She moves slowly, but it is still able to get through life almost entirely on her own, a skill she perfected when she arrived in this country almost 60 years ago, with nothing but nimble fingers and tenacity.

"I'm very independent. My mind is still sharp."