Yiddish-club regular Celia Harrison, 106

When Celia “Babie” Retter was 6 years old, her father used to send her on Friday afternoons with challah, candles and chicken soup to the poor part of town, to visit an elderly Jewish woman.

“This poor old woman would sit with her and take her hand and tell her how great she was for bringing her what she needed to make Shabbat,” said her granddaughter, Anya Grant of Oakland.

Grant said her grandmother was known for opening her house to everyone and feeding them.

Retter, whose married name was Harrison, died in Berkeley on Sept. 14. She was 106.

She was born on March 16, 1898, in Sadagura, in the Bukovina region of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

One of nine children in the family, Harrison was 3 when her mother died. She was raised mostly by her older sister, though her father later remarried.

When she was 16, the Russians invaded her town and killed her father. She fled to Vienna, where she lived in dire poverty, but attended the University of Vienna. She was able to support herself by teaching Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

In Vienna, she met and married Frank Harrison. They emigrated to the United States in 1921, settling in Los Angeles.

Celia Harrison then obtained a degree in social work and got a job with Los Angeles County, working mostly with the Latino population. Harrison worked until she was 70, and in 1989, moved to Berkeley to live with her daughter, Lil Gendler. For the years she lived here, she regularly attended a group for Yiddish-speakers at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

“Everyone who knew her was in awe of her,” said her granddaughter, Grant. “She had such an extraordinary life.”

In addition to her daughter and granddaughter, Harrison is survived by two grandchildren.

Donations can be made to B’nai B’rith, Oakland Lodge 252, 336 Lenox Ave., Oakland, CA 94610 or Congregation Beth El Building Fund, 1630 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94703.

A memorial service for Harrison will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 16, 2005, at the Berkeley Richmond JCC, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."