I was struck by the number of centenarians (or almost centenarians) in the news lately, not only because living to be 100 is becoming more common, but because when you live that long, you see so many changes and pass through so much history, that your life becomes more than a lifetime. I remember, for example, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and I was sitting watching with my grandmother, then in her mid-90s, who was remarking about how things had changed since she had a part time job hand-stuffing bullets for the Austrian army in the 1880s.
Recent news mentioned a number of people who seemed to have lived through a number of lives.
The first was Antonina Pirozhkova, who died recently at 101. She had been living in Sarasota, of all places, having moved there after several years in the Washington DC area, where her grandson had taught theater at Catholic University. But, as you might guess from her name, she was not American-born, having been born in Tsarist Russia (pre-Bolshevik revolution), where she was married (actually, it was the Russian equivalent of a common law marriage) to Russian-Jewish short story writer Isaac Babel.
Now, Isaac Babel is a man clearly of the past. He was born in 1894, and killed by the Stalinist regime in 1940. He is best known for his depictions of war in the the book of short stories, “Red Cavalry”, and his tales of turn of the century Jewish life in another book of short stories, “Odessa Tales”. He made his living as a journalist, and was a Communist supporter. He had been married before (he wife left him and moved to Paris to escape the Soviet regime), he was known to be a charmer and a womanizer, but he entered into a long relationship with Pirozhkova, which produced a child, and ended with his arrest and murder.
Pirozhkova, on the other hand, was no wall-flower, but rather a modern Soviet woman and an accomplished civil engineer who was instrumental in the design and construction of Moscow’s famed subway system. She did not remarry. So this Russian born, Soviet citizen, widow of a famed author, and important civil engineer, wound up living and dying (at age 101) in Sarasota, Florida. In 2010.
I also saw the obituary of Grace Boyd, who died in California at the age of 97. Grace Boyd (then Grace Bradley) was a movie actress of the 1930s, although I cannot say that I am familiar with her or her films. But in 1937, Grace Bradley married William Boyd, an actor over twenty years her senior, on whom she apparently had a crush since high school. William Boyd, those old enough to remember, will recall was the actor who for years graced movie and TV screens as Hopalong Cassidy, one of the central characters of my youth – a character of maturity, good sense, high ethical standards, selflessness, self-confidence, humor, who was prone to adventure, and who always came out on top. Boyd died 38 years ago, well into his 80s. I never would have guessed that his wife was still alive.
The other two senior citizens who came to my attention were Ruth Gruber and Nicholas Winton.
Winton, now 101 and official Sir Nicholas, and still very much alive, was a English banker and stockbroker (I believe his parents were born Jewish, but that he was not raised in the religion), who had traveled to Prague with a friend in 1938, and realized the danger that the Jewish community found itself in. Working quickly, he arranged for a Kindertransport, a train that eventually took over 600 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to England, and found homes for them with English families. The children survived the war of course; most of their parents did not. For years, Winton kept his activities secret, apparently out of modesty, until old scrapbooks were found, and he began to be recognized for what he had done. Some years ago, we saw a documentary that told his story, called “The Power of Good”. I think it is still around and available. You should try to see it; I won’t give away the punch line. Nicholas Winton was in the news recently because a statue of him was unveiled at the English railroad station where the Kindertransport ended; an earlier statue had been placed at the station of embarkation in Prague.
And then there is Ruth Gruber, whose 99th birthday is tomorrow. Ruth Gruber has been a journalist extraordinaire for most of her life, and whose many books provide endless fascination. Her autobiography, “Ahead of Time”, is a must-read, telling of her Brooklyn childhood, her remarkable education at NYU and the University of Wisconsin (to which she hitchiked, having to money to get there any other way), her winning a fellowship to study in Germany and her receipt of a Ph.D in Germany at the age of 20, the youngest person ever to earn a German Ph.D., and a Jew and woman to boot. Her thesis, and first book, was on Virginia Woolf, whom she met and interviewed in England. She became a journalist, and a female foreign correspondent when such a thing was almost impossible, reporting not only in Europe but in the Soviet Union. She became involved with Jewish refugees after World War II, she was given a special task by President Roosevelt to accompany and look out for approximately 1000 displaced Jews who were secretly brought to the United States, but held for a year in a (yes it’s true) prison camp in Oswego, NY (who knew, huh?). And it goes on and on.
I have read a number of her books, including “Haven”, about her Oswego experience, “Raquela”, an award winning biography of an Israeli nurse during and following the 1948 creation of the state of Israel (including interesting information on life not only in Jerusalem at the time, but Beersheva, where Raquela’s husband, Moshe Prives, founded the medical school of Ben Gurion University of the Negev), and most recently, “I Went to the Soviet Arctic”, her 1939 book about her adventures as the first non-Russian correspondent to visit the pioneering (or would you call it gulag?) settlements meant to open arctic Russia to development (mineral exploitation, opening a “northeast passage” to move cargo from Asia to Europe, and of course for military use). A fascinating book.
Life after life after life. All within one lifetime.