As Told By Dianne Ettl
“I’d like to live to be a hundred and twenty, so I can see all the wonderful things to come. And at the right time, I’d probably ask for another twenty.” Chaim said that as he was celebrating his one hundredth birthday at his beloved Day Center of the Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan, surrounded by other seniors and the staff – all of whom adored him. Unfortunately, he did not live to be as old as that, having passed away a month short of the age of one hundred and four.
All the wonderful things to come? This is not a statement one hears very often. Many people, much younger than Chaim, lose their optimism and their zest for living as the years go by. Chaim maintained an enormous love of life. “To think of all the marvelous technological and scientific advances I’ve seen over the past century is amazing. I can only wonder what the next fifty years will produce? The young people of today are living in a wonderful age.” Evidently, no “good old days” regrets for Chaim.
Who was this unusual person? What was Chaim really like? The story of this interesting gentleman, jauntily sporting a French Beret, contains quite a bit of mystery.
Chaim was born in Poland to a comfortable middle class, intellectual Jewish family, one of eight brothers and sisters. Well educated in both religious and secular studies, he possessed the peculiar linguistic abilities shared by many Polish Jews. Chaim spoke, read and wrote Polish, Yiddish, English, and German. Later, when he unexpectedly found himself in a new country, he quickly learned Portuguese.
In 1939, at age 38, Chaim was successfully employed as an accountant in a chemical industry firm. Life was good despite the growing political threat. A faded photo of a beautiful, elegantly dressed young lady walking with three other people in a wooded area, is evidence that life was not all work and no fun. When I met Chaim, he still carried this picture in his wallet, and a little questioning revealed that this was his fiancé. I was surprised. In the 1930s, most men married early, usually in their twenties. Why was a charming man like Chaim still a bachelor? Of course I could not ask such a question and we will never know.
In June of that fateful year, Chaim embarked on a journey to far-off Brazil. One can imagine him enjoying his cruise, possibly chatting with the other men, definitely flirting with the ladies. It was a business trip, and the government allowed him to take only the equivalent of $60.00 out of the country. This was normal, and what did it matter, anyway? Arriving on July 6th, he expected to return to his home, his family and his fiancé in a couple of months. However, in September war broke out in Europe, and like so many other people, Chaim was stranded in San Paolo. He would never see his family again, and we do not know the fate of his lovely fiancé. All we know is that Chaim’s entire family was murdered during the Holocaust.
And there he was, alone, no money, no language, no close friends, no employment of any kind. Nothing but his wits to live by. However, adversity could not keep Chaim down. Naturally, with his amazing linguistic ability, it took him no time to learn Portuguese, and I even suspect that between July and September he had already mastered a sufficient vocabulary to start hunting for a job. With his likable personality, he may have also come across various opportunities and made at least some casual acquaintances, if not yet real friends. He started out in different ventures, attempting to find his niche. For a short time he tried to work with the big steel industries, but when this did not work out, he turned to smaller businesses and eventually ended up in the field of women’s lingerie. The business was located in San Paolo, and Chaim would spend twenty-eight years there. He told me little about his personal life, I only know that he had married, but I do not know his wife’s name, or anything else about her, really. She is another mystery.
Working in the undergarment and foundation business required frequent trips to New York City. Falling in love with the big city, Chaim considered these trips a bonus. Despite the horror of losing his family and his fiancé, and the disruption of his life caused by the abrupt separation from his homeland, Chaim was able to rise above the grief and disorientation, even learning to enjoy his new life. He always reached out to other people, helping those in need, and naturally made many friends and useful connections. At some point, I do not know the exact date, he joined three friends in a new enterprise – building condominiums in Rio de Janeiro. It turned out to be a great success, and Chaim made enough money to become financially independent. It was time to start evaluating his life, and thinking how he would like to spend the rest of it.
In 1968, by then a sixty-seven years old widower, Chaim reached a momentous decision. He would sell his share in the partnership, pack his bags, and move to the city of his dreams. A whole new adventure! He could not know it, yet, but the exciting life in America would inspire him to develop his amazing talents. It is here that he would become a superb poet and an accomplished artist.
Of course, the talents always existed, but they were not developed. As a young man he wanted to study art, and with a different life would have probably become a professional fine artist. However, his mother, a loving and very traditional woman, was concerned that painting will not allow him to make a living, and discouraged him from pursuing art as a career. So Chaim reached his mid-sixties before he decided that the time had come for following his dream.
I have never found out what he did when arriving in New York. All I know is that typically, he tried to connect with others, to help. He completed a course in “Seniors Teaching Seniors” at Columbia University and became a volunteer. But I do not know where he volunteered, or where he lived.
Eventually even people like Chaim grow older and need a little help. He came to our Jewish Home and Hospital, where it was arranged for him to live under the conditions of assisted living at the Red Oak Apartments, a part of the Jewish Home and Hospital Enriched Housing Program. It was situated right across the street from the Home on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, an exciting area full of good restaurants, fun shopping, and diverse population. This was assisted living at its best – Chaim lived alone and led an independent life, the dream of so many senior citizens. A hot dinner, a home health aid for laundry and cleaning, and an available social worker helped him manage his life beautifully. And every day, he would come to the program that enriched his life so much at the Day Center.
The program that was offered by the Day Center functioned like a combination of a social setting and a medical facility. The members participated in choosing activities to suit their tastes and talents. It included meals, health seminars, holiday observances and celebrations, discussion groups, and visits to museums, concerts, movies, and theater. The members were also taken on shopping trips which were great fun – just because a person is older does not mean he, or particularly she, has lost the love of shopping! Chaim enjoyed the activities and the company tremendously. And here the miracle happened – Chaim picked up the brushes and the paints he dreamed about for so long – and produced magnificent paintings. He was supplied with all the materials he wanted, both at the center and at his apartment, and threw himself into his art with joy and exuberance that still sparkle when you look at his art.
When I came to work at the Day Center, I noticed this dapper gentleman, wearing his little French Beret, and asked who he was. My coworker told me he was a painter and introduced me to him. I asked him to show me what he did, and was amazed by what I saw. Chaim was delighted when I told him how impressive I thought his art was. I started arranging exhibitions, and we slowly became good friends. I used to recognize the sound of his shuffling slow gait from a distance as he religiously walked every day down the hall to see if the NY Times has arrived, so he could read the book reviews. I would immediately hand it to him. The NY Times was a symbolic ritual. He never gave up on learning and growing, even when he reached an age when many feel the need to slow down. Life went on, his social life and his art kept him busy and content. He went to services every Saturday, ate kosher, and was devoted to tradition, and that supplied him with additional stability and comfort.
And then he surprised me again by confessing another secret talent. All this time Chaim was also writing poetry. His poems were magnificent. Sensitive, lyrical, full of haunting imagery, I knew they would touch anyone who read them. Curiously, as he worked on his old-fashioned typewriter, he typed them in a block, without attention to lines. As he gave them to me I arranged them in poetic shape, and added a title on each page. He was thrilled by the new look. The poems were regularly published in various magazines and newsletters associated with the home, such as Vim and Vigor Magazine, the Evergreen Newsletter, and the GO Newsletter. He also wrote a couple of short stories. One was based on mythology, and the other about his memories and his past.
I see Chaim as the personification of lifelong learning. When his arm was temporarily injured, he increased his reading. When his eyes became a little too weak for the New York Times and for certain books, he requested audio tapes. Nothing stopped Chaim from living life to the full.
Of course, the years do tell, and eventually Chaim became frailer and needed to use a cane, then a walker. He handled it well, but after a while, disaster struck. Alone in his apartment, he fell down and injured himself. After undergoing successful treatment at the hospital, he went into rehabilitation. The rehabilitation department was located at the Jewish Home and Hospital, and he could not go back and forth to his apartment every day, it was simply not physically possible. So they found him a room at the nursing home division. Of course, they saved his apartment for him, and he was promised that as soon as he got better, he could go home.
He wanted to go home so badly, but could not do so right away. Indeed, as soon as he began healing he requested it, but the social worker could not discharge him because certain documentation was not in order. Correcting it took months. His home attendant kept wheeling him often in his wheelchair to talk to the social worker. She kept trying to get past the bureaucracy, and finally she succeeded. She planned to get him twenty-four hours home care, and all seemed to be well. Only one obstacle remained. They had to find a family member who would be willing to assume responsibility. This relative would be the “contact person” or guardian, who was to be available in case of an emergency. Without such a contact, a senior citizen in such a frail condition could not be discharged and live on his own. It seemed a simple thing to arrange, but Chaim had no family other than one cousin, who could not assume responsibility due to her own old age. She had to refuse.
The social worker told Chaim that he could not go back to the Red Oak Apartments, and she would come and help him sort things out before letting go of the apartment. In itself, it was not so terrible, but she also had to tell Chaim that he could not visit the Day Center while living as a resident of the nursing home. The system would not pay for both at the same time. This was a heavy blow and Chaim’s heart was broken.
He had lost his will to live all at once, and that was the end. Three days later he was back in the hospital. The next day the social worker announced that she heard that Chaim died. We were in a state of shock. We somehow thought he would never die. Worse, we felt that the system failed us miserably. And yet, I do not want to dwell on the sadness, but rather to celebrate a full life of grace, beauty, and strength of character. Let the paintings and the poems speak for Chaim.
God drops a tear and a poet is born,
Formed of susceptible chords men call “soul”;
Colors are his inspiration, wreckage gets his compassion.
Trees are telling stories, wind brings greetings,
And dignified mountains are bearing events.
Sun’s ascent elates; descent produces gloom.
And the poet turns away from night,
The partner of the wicked,
For hiding the culprit.
And the stars too,
Creatures of moon’s debauchery,
Find in night sanctuary.
And the poet sings odes to flowers –
Touched, they shed tears – but men, not grasping
The poet’s meaning, show sympathy to his “insanity.”
STATUE OF LIBERTY
Floating to America’s shore,
Beating a path for waves of emigrants,
Like a devoted mother.
Liberty Lady with torch in hand,
Illuminates tides of flocks,
Reaching America’s coast.
Not despair or worry,
Destiny has in store,
Freedom, Liberty for all.
A dream of old,
Becomes a reality,
Holds forever high your torch,