Forward Thinking

Alexander Imich, Czar's Last Bar Mitzvah Boy

By Jordan Kutzik

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Alexander Imich at 111 years old / Guinness Book of World Records

Ray Bradbury, in his classic 1955 story “The Last, the Very Last,” has a child encounter a 108-year-old man believed to be the last known Civil War veteran. The story, reworked as a chapter in his novel Dandelion Wine, introduces the veteran to Bradbury’s childhood alter-ego as a “time machine” whom he uses to see the events of the past through the veteran’s retellings.

Conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors, I often feel the weight of history as I speak with such “time machines.” But no encounter has so reminded me of the two reincarnations of Bradbury’s story as the afternoon I spent last July with Dr. Alexander Imich, who passed away on June 8 at the age of 111.

Born February 4, 1903 in Częstochowa, Poland (then part of the Czarist Empire), Imich was — like the man in Bradbury’s story — the very last veteran of a war, in his case the Polish-Soviet war of 1918-1919. He was also, as best as I could figure, the very last Jew to have been Bar-Mitzvahed in the Czarist Empire. He was the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor and the last man to have received a PhD in the 1920s. But his advanced age was far from the only reason I had sought him out. As his Wikipedia article states in sterile un-ironic prose, “he was one of the few super-centenarians known for reasons other than longevity.”

I had first heard of Imich when I was 12 or 13. At the time I was fascinated by the paranormal and Imich was — at the age of 98 or so — just beginning another phase of his career in the field. Two years earlier he had founded the Anomalous Phenomena Research Center, which he would run for the rest of his life. As the last active parapsychologist who had published during the golden age of paranormal studies in Weimar Germany, Imich was then, in the early 2000s, regarded as the field’s preeminent elder-statesman.

Although I had long lost most of my interest in the paranormal, I still instantly recognized Imich’s name last spring while pouring over lists of possible interview subjects for the Yiddish Book Center’s oral history project. After getting in touch with him through his great-niece Karen Bogen, Imich decided that he wasn’t “Jewish enough” for the Yiddish Book Center. Despite my best efforts I was unable to dissuade him of the notion. He did, however, agree to let me interview him after I told him about my interest in the paranormal.

I sat with Imich and Bogen for two hours on a miserably hot July day in his Upper West Side apartment. It was not the easiest interview to conduct. Profoundly hard of hearing, it often took two or three tries for him to hear a question and his responses were often delayed as he grasped across the decades to retrieve his memories. But watching the interview today, I am struck by just how well he remembered his early childhood. Asked to describe his hometown, he vividly recalled its landmark monastery surrounded by a fort with cannonballs embedded in the walls from when Sweden had invaded in 1626.

His father was a prominent businessman who had founded the city’s Jewish hospital and was active in Bnai-Brith. Polish was his mother tongue, unlike most of the city’s Jews, who spoke Yiddish. His elementary school class had four other Jewish pupils. There was no difference between how the Jewish and Polish students were treated except for religion classes; when the Polish priest came to the classroom, the five Jews would go to another room to study Hebrew with a rabbi. Despite his having had a Bar Mitzvah, the Imich family wasn’t particularly religious; to his grandfather’s dismay the family usually had a Christmas tree come December.

World War I found the Imiches in Germany at a spa. They were able to return to Częstochowa, where the war was uneventful: “There was no fighting in our area. The Russians simply withdrew and the Germans took over. There was no animosity between the occupiers and the local population.” After the Czarist Empire collapsed, the Soviet Union and the newly independent nation of Poland went to war. Imich, along with his entire high school class, was drafted to fight the Soviets. At the age of 15 he served in the Polish army driving trucks. After graduating from high school he pursued a career as a sea captain but was forced to quit after encountering anti-Semitism. Imich noted ruefully that although he was the fifth-best breaststroke swimmer in Poland, even he was no match for his superiors’ threat of throwing him overboard in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

World War 2 found Imich and his wife Wela living near Warsaw. After fleeing the German invasion into Soviet territory, he and his wife were deported to a Soviet Gulag for refusing to renounce their Polish citizenship. “There was meager food, many people did not survive. Somehow I did,” he recalled. “We only got off when it was minus 50 degrees Celsius or colder. Then we could stay in the barracks. When you spat, it turned to ice.”

After surviving the camps and several years in Uzbekistan, he and his wife left Poland for the U.S., settling in Waterbury, Connecticut and later moving to New York. When asked about his longevity he cited his reduced calorie diet, having not had children, having been an athlete in his youth and remaining intellectually curious into old age. This past April, after becoming the oldest verified man in the world he had a less rehearsed answer for the media: “I don’t know. I didn’t die earlier… I have no idea how this happened.”

If there was one single thing that struck me about Imich, it wasn’t his incredible longevity or even all of the history he witnessed, but his intellectual curiosity. When discussing his studies and his reliance on email to conduct them I realized that I was speaking to a man who had come of age during the dawn of automobiles yet was still seeking the answers to life’s most profound questions. Like most seekers, he never found the answers. But unlike most, he never stopped trying to make sense of the perplexing world around him. Even at the age of 111.

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