Nearing 106, Elsie Rich still stretching her mind &mdash and body

Sunlight filters through the kitchen windows of Elsie Rich’s apartment and illuminates her delicately lined face. A disabled parking placard hangs on the wall near the blue ribbons she’s earned for being the oldest attendee at the Sonoma County Fair.

Near them are instructions for her knee bends, leg stretches and arm circles. Elsie Rich is almost 106, and she loves exercising.

“I wouldn’t be in such good condition if I didn’t exercise,” said the Vienna-born Rich, who moved to Santa Rosa with her husband, Henry, in 1943. She started exercising shortly after Henry died in 1976.

“And a good attitude helps you to grow old gracefully and live longer and happier,” she added.

Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa will honor Rich and her full life Aug. 5, the day before her birthday, with a festive celebration that will be attended by dozens of her family and friends. Rich and her late husband were among the founding members of the synagogue in 1943.

“I usually don’t make plans,” said Rich, who was one of five children. Her father died when she was 12 and her mother took over his factory and reared the children. “I go day-by-day. At my age, anything might happen. But they wanted to throw me a party, so I’ll be there.”

Rich attends Shabbat services frequently, gambles some Mondays in Mendocino and never turns down a game of Scrabble, even though her playing partner moved away five years ago. Besides exercising, prayer and the slot machines, she still prepares her own meals, reads the daily paper, does the word jumble and occasionally allows herself to relax in front of the TV.

She also loves working, something she’s done out of necessity since World War I. “I’ve worked all my life,” said Rich, who has toiled as a domestic worker and helped run a chicken farm with her husband in Santa Rosa for nearly 30 years. “I was never without work. And I’ve always had more than I needed. I was always very thrifty.”

She shops with her nephew, George Shippman, so she can fill her freezer and have the goods on hand to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and make chicken soup. She loves apple juice. But she doesn’t necessarily understand all the fuss about her age.

“I have so much help and life is simplified,” she said, attributing the simplicity to technology. “But today people are so nervous. Always rushing, rushing.”

Rich and her husband migrated to the United States eight months after they heard Hitler promise to exterminate the Jews in a radio speech on New Year’s Day 1938. “My husband woke up and saw a large Nazi flag draped across the hotel outside our home. He said, ‘We won’t be able to breathe here.'”

Most of their family, who later perished, downplayed the Nazi threat and tried to convince them not to leave. Hitler invaded Austria in 1939, but by then it was too late for the others to escape.

Elsie and Henry settled in New York City where his sister and her family lived. Both families had survived two World Wars. But World War I, in many ways, left an even more indelible mark on her soul.

“I became a pacifist after witnessing the victims of WWI,” said Rich, her sonorous voice rising throughout the room. “Watching the wounded and seeing their suffering,” which included refugees without limbs and in visible agony, was too much for her, she said.

Today her pacifism, a peaceful pursuit and ideology, fuels the only anger she demonstrates in her life. “For sure, we must drop Bush. I am mad at the Supreme Court for bringing Bush in. I am mad at Congress for giving Bush the power to do what he wants.

“I am not sure who I want to be the next president,” she continued. “I better wait until the election is closer. I think we should take 100 people — artists, politicians, police, whatever they are — and put them in the best hotel and let them sweat it out and choose the best person. Someone near to the people.”

The other philosophy that influenced her greatly was the work of Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler. Because she also helped her mother raise her younger brother, she went to hear Adler’s lectures in Vienna when she was 16.

“My whole life has been guided by Dr. Adler,” Rich said. “His teachings, that boys and girls have the same abilities, maybe in a different way, gave me a good feeling. He was revolutionary at the time, but he gave girls the feeling of being someone.”

Rich’s personal viewpoints were also formed by the Germanic tradition of self-sufficiency and respect for authority. She advised young people today “to learn to be self-supporting and not ask for everything. Do it for yourself. Listen to your parents and teachers; they want the best for you.”

As she plunged herself again into her nearly 95-year-old memories and reminisced about her teen years, she recited a German blessing she said at a confirmation ceremony in her synagogue when she was 13.

“Life is glorious,” she added. “And I am very grateful. I just want an easy end. No matter how much or how little money I’ve had, I am rich.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.