The century club

The average human heart beats 80 times per minute. At this rate, Greta Livingston’s heart has pulsated more than 4 billion times. That’s 1 billion more times than your heart will beat, since, if you’re average, you’ll live to be 77.

But Greta is not average. She’s 101.

She does not use a walker, a cane or a wheelchair. She does not have hearing aids or nurses’ aides. She has nothing but cartilage in her hips and only recently stopped riding Muni because she promised her children she’d start acting her age and take a senior van instead.

She belongs to an exclusive but growing tribe of individuals called centenarians. Membership is open to those who live until at least 100. There are an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 of them in the United States. By the year 2050, some demographers estimate there could be 800,000.

Most, like Greta, are healthy — healthier than many seniors a generation behind them.

Rose Freedman, for example, just began to rely on a wheelchair at 101, but her mind is still razor sharp. She likes to remind people pushing her along her retirement center’s hallway that she’s not fragile, that they can go faster than molasses.

Then there’s Erna Harding, the East Bay’s oldest Holocaust survivor, who has a mind like an attic, with 104 years of experience stored inside. While some of that is hard to access, since her memory and hearing have declined, many of her memories remain fresh in her not-yet-finished autobiographical manuscript.

It is not a coincidence that these three Jewish centenarians are women. In fact, 85 percent of people who live to be 100 are female. Otherwise, centenarians share few commonalities. The ability to age slowly and live an unusually long time crosses all ethnicities, nationalities, education levels, socioeconomic status, religions and eating habits, studies show.

The three Bay Area women admit they don’t have a magic formula for long life.

“There’s really no rhyme or reason to it,” Rose said recently at her San Francisco senior retirement home.

“I don’t know, I’m lucky I guess,” Greta said a day later at her condominium a block away.

Everyone expects them to have an answer, they say. A guess, perhaps?

“I accept everything. You can’t fight age and you can’t let it make you unhappy,” Rose explained. “You have to make yourself content.

“Honey, this is the whole secret.”

Greta Livingston, 101

A century of laugh lines stretch and shift as Greta Livingston smiles, which is often. Her frequent laughter brings the same warmth to a room as the aroma of grandma’s matzah ball soup. Her hair is white and perfectly coifed. Her pale blue eyes twinkle as she recounts stories from her youth and adolescence in Germany.

Greta would be in remarkably good health if she were 80; that she’s 101 makes her that much more impressive.

Born Greta Stern in 1905 in Wuppertal, Germany, she and her little brother grew up with their parents in a comfortable home. At 20, she moved out and married. She and her husband, Eric, had two daughters, and life was pleasant — until Hitler came to power.

On Nov. 9, 1938, Eric was arrested because he was Jewish. Later that night, “seven huge Nazis came and smashed a chandelier through our table,” she recalled. They also threw the Livingstons’ china on the floor and ripped apart their down comforters.

Historians would come to call the night Kristallnacht.

Eric was released from Dachau 10 days later, in part because they already had American visas, and in part because she’d written letter after letter demanding they release him.

“We had no rights anymore. Our children couldn’t go to school,” she said.

The young married couple had applied for the visas a few months earlier, when the Nazis forced Eric to resign as the owner and manager of a dress-ribbon factory. They boarded a boat for New York City, arriving in January 1939 with 10 German marks, or about $40.

“I was so happy to be in America,” she said. Her brother escaped to England, where he lived for his adult life (he has since died). Her mother, and Eric’s, weren’t as lucky. They assumed Nazism would pass and so didn’t come to America. His mother died in Terezin. It’s believed that Greta’s mother committed suicide before the Nazis could take her away. Their fathers died before the war.

Once they arrived in New York, the Livingstons lived with other European refugees in a cockroach-infested apartment for about three weeks. They couldn’t figure out how to make a living in the city, and decided to try San Francisco instead; Eric had visited the city years earlier on business and loved it.

So they got on another boat, this one headed south for the Panama Canal, and stayed on the ship until it looped up and around to San Francisco Bay. It was the only way to travel west using German currency.

Their German furniture not seized by the Nazis arrived two years later and today lends a regal, “Antiques Roadshow” feel to Greta’s impeccably clean condo near Japantown.

“We always said she shined the shine,” said granddaughter Deborah Hoffman.

Eric Livingston found work filling vending machines with cigarettes and candy. Greta babysat for Jewish families and made $1 for every three hours worked. Then a stroke of good fortune connected Eric with the widow of a pest control business; he took over and today Crane Pest Control is still a family business (a son-in-law runs it), and nationally known.

Though the Livingstons were not particularly observant and did not regularly attend synagogue, they were involved in congregations Beth Israel and Emanu-El.

They volunteered for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and served as ambassadors to the wave of German Jews who moved from Shanghai to California. They traveled to Israel multiple times and even considered making aliyah, but decided they were too old for such a change. Both recorded their stories for the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project.

Over the years, Greta has been peripherally involved with Hadassah, the Institute on Aging and Shaare Zedek hospital in Israel.

“My dad, sister and I were always so active in the Jewish community, but my mom was never president of anything,” said Vera Stein, Greta’s youngest daughter. “But she always said, ‘Well, you’re always making speeches, and somebody has to listen.'”

Eric died in 1998, at 100, after 73 years of marriage. The couple had two children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, all living in California.

Greta said his positive outlook kept him going.

“He was an eternal optimist — the glass was always half-full for him,” she said. “After a while, you adopt that.”

His death was “very hard, and still is.” She stays active and busy by playing bridge with her neighbors, getting season tickets to the symphony, reading large-print books and having lunch with her grandchildren.

Stein said she admires her mother’s positive outlook. “My son-in-law, who’s a physician at Kaiser, said he’s never seen anyone as vibrant as she is.” The family affectionately calls her “Noni,” and refer to her as “the elephant” of the family because her memory is so deep. Her quirks are “Noni-isms.”

She has outlived all of her friends. Her oldest daughter, who’s 80, just moved into a retirement home.

After 101 years on earth, what kind of wisdom would she share with younger generations? “To always say the truth, and to make people happy.”

So, has she had a good life?

“Have I had a good life?” she mused, her German accent still audible. She fiddled with her wedding ring that is slightly too big on her wrinkled finger.

“Yes,” she said. “Definitely.”

Erna Harding, 104

Erna Harding remembers her childhood with clarity.

She was born in 1902 in Gera, Germany, a small town just west of Dresden. Her parents were wealthy, but she wasn’t spoiled. For instance, Erna’s mother wouldn’t let the housekeepers do anything for Erna until she learned how to do things for herself.

At school, people teased her because she was Jewish. She kept that a secret from her parents, knowing they’d send her to boarding school, and she didn’t want to leave home.

“We Jews in Germany, especially in small towns, always felt the same: not quite ‘belonging,'” Erna wrote in her unfinished autobiography.

After finishing grade school, she trained to become a pediatric nurse. She started working the night shift at age 21.

She married Paul Rosenthal in 1927. They had a son, Peter, in 1928, and were divorced a year later. Then, in 1936, Erna married again, mostly because her parents and sisters didn’t think she could take care of herself and her child, she said. She divorced Harry Schonfeld two years later.

The domestic skills her mother so insisted she learn came in handy as Hitler rose to power, and provided her ticket to a housekeeping job in England. She left Germany in 1939, “just in time,” she said. She also worked as a maternity nurse and a chauffer.

Her parents had died years before the war; her sister and sister’s husband refused to leave Germany with her. They died in a concentration camp.

It was not easy to be a German Jew in 1940s England, but it was safer than Berlin, where she left her family behind. Erna said she suffered a lot of anti-Semitism.

Because she earned so little money each week, she had to send her son to boarding school 50 miles outside of London, a cheaper option than supporting him in her home. That meant, however, that she saw him infrequently.

“To send your little boy away — it was hard,” she said, her German accent still noticeable.

The pair moved to New York City in 1947, where she found work as a secretary for a typesetter, then as a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital. She stayed there until 1977, when she moved to Walnut Creek for the warmer weather and to be closer to Peter, who then worked in Berkeley.

She lived at Walnut Creek Manor for many years, then moved to Byron Park. Today she lives at Concord Royale, an assisted living facility in Concord.

A collage of images — old family portraits, paintings of Germany and Switzerland, birthday cards from her 100th birthday — adorn the walls of her room.

Erna’s memory is beginning to fray around the edges. When she struggles to remember something, she closes her eyes, revealing translucent pink eyelids. She leans back in her recliner and rearranges the afghan around her legs. Her words come slowly. But she said she’ll never forget the way she felt before and after the Holocaust.

“It’s amazing what humans do to other humans. You can’t …” She pauses. “It was terrible.”

Erna doesn’t have any grandchildren. Peter, now retired and living in Reno, comes to visit occasionally. He came for her birthday party in Concord.

“I am very lonely. It is peculiar, with so many people around,” she said.

One person, Sharon Brandes, tries to curb Erna’s feelings of isolation. Brandes was connected to Erna through a program at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. The 55-year-old woman is one of two volunteers who visit Erna once a week.

“It is such an honor to be with her every Friday,” Brandes said.

Rose Freedman, 101

Ninety-six years ago, there were no cars on San Francisco’s streets.

That’s right. No traffic, except for horses and buggies.

Rose Freedman, born Rose Cohen, still remembers. She was 5 years old and had just moved to the city from Baltimore with her mother and two siblings. Her father had died three years earlier, and her uncle convinced the family California would be a good change.

The 101-year-old has an inviting smile that she flashes often. She knows the names of all the staff at her assisted living home near Japantown in San Francisco. She gives them hugs. If she doesn’t call them by name, she calls them darling. Or sometimes, sweetheart.

On the surface, she appears fairly conservative, with short auburn hair, shiny amber earrings the size of cherries and big shoulder pads under her floral blouse.

Talk to her for a few minutes, though, and her quirky humor comes out. One of her favorite practical jokes is to talk to telemarketers in Yiddish and pretend she doesn’t speak English.

“If you have a sense of humor, it goes a long, long way,” she said. “I think that’s what keeps me going.”

Rose grew up in the Fillmore District, which at that time was the Jewish part of town. She met her future husband, Melvin Kaufman, at a concert in Golden Gate Park. She was 19 and he was 31. They married soon after.

His family was very religious. She was not. She had to learn Yiddish “out of self defense,” she said, and also how to keep kosher, which she didn’t know a thing about when she first married.

He owned Kaufman’s Department Store in Bayview, which at the time was a nice part of town, she said. She helped with everything. At some point she tried business college, but hated it and dropped out.

She and her family first attended Temple Beth Israel, then Sherith Israel, where she served as a secretary. A lifelong member of Hadassah, she also volunteered with City of Hope. She has volunteered with Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Seniors at Home for 16 years, visiting the elderly and, for the past 10 years, someone younger than herself.

“I wish I could clone Rose,” said Debbi Goodman, Seniors at Home volunteer coordinator. “People like to be around her. She’s beautiful, inside.”

Rose and Melvin Kaufman had been married 46 years when he died. The hardest part of their marriage, Rose said, was coping with the death of her middle son, who was 36. After his death, she questioned the existence of God.

“He had so much to offer the world, I wondered why God took him away … I sometimes believe in God. I have a lot of unanswered questions.”

She remarried in 1974, to Louis Freedman, a publisher’s representative. He died in 1985; she still frequently talks to his children as though they are her own.

One, Russell Freedman, a children’s book author, dedicated his most recent book to her and inscribed it “To Rose, with boundless love and greatest admiration.” He calls her every Sunday from New York City. They talk politics.

“Except for her arthritis, she’s one of the most alive people I’ve ever met in my life,” he said.

Rose traveled around the world with her husbands, including Panama, Colombia, Mexico, Alaska, Israel, Asia and the South Pacific.

She has four living children, including two stepchildren. She has eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Nonetheless, life in the century club can be lonely. Rose has outlived all her friends and siblings.

“I’m the only one left,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s fortunate or not.”

Death is an infrequent thought, but not an entirely unwelcome one. She’s lived a good life. The idea of dying, however, still scares her a bit, perhaps because for her it’s final. She does not believe in an afterlife.

“I won’t see my children, or the sunshine, forever. That’s what frightens me,” she said.

She can no longer get around by herself, so going to synagogue is too difficult for her. But she’s OK with that because, she said, if there is a God he can hear you everywhere.

She needs assistance to get dressed, and she recently gave up her walker for a wheelchair. She can no longer make her signature mandelbrot. The salon is too far away; her manicurist comes to her. But she tries to stay busy by participating in the many planned activities at Coventry Park in San Francisco. It makes her feel like she’s on a cruise ship.

“Nothing is perfect, honey, and you can’t expect it to be,” she said.

“Things have changed for me and I’ve accepted it. I can’t do everything I used to do. So I make the most of my life. I’m content. And if you make yourself content, you’re much happier.”


Who are today’s centenarians?

So you want to live to (or past) 100?

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Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.