‘They were toddlers during the Great Depression. . .’

By Hollace Ava Weiner

They were toddlers during the Great Depression, teens during World War II and parents as the polio epidemic subsided. They are the 1.9 million Americans in their 90s. Among them are 15 Beth-El congregants, all vaccinated and emerging from a year of isolation into an optimistic springtime. 

One of those nonagenarians, Arthur Gressman, 94, is back on his feet following knee-replacement surgery — the right knee last May and the left knee in July. For his birthday in April, Arthur celebrated with lunch at Carshon’s Deli, where he has dined since “plate lunches downtown were 35 cents.”

Evelyn Siegel looks forward to her granddaughter Katie’s wedding May 15. “The same day I turn 94,” she said. Throughout the pandemic her extended family, including a brother in California, Zoomed each Shabbat to share candlelighting, wine and challah and to count their blessings. 

Roz Rosenthal, who turned 96 during the pandemic, was thrilled to witness her granddaughter Maddie’s marriage last March, outdoors at her son Billy’s home. 

Joe Klein, 93, an engineer and a techie who lives in California, stays in touch with the temple through the internet. As the lockdown loosened up, he looked forward to his first “professional” haircut in a year. (He did have a few “amateur clippings” during the lockdown.) 

After careers in business, medicine, engineering, social services and the volunteer world, what sustained these Beth-Elders during a year of isolation? 

Daily exercise, says Edythe Cohen, 93, who works out on her balcony overlooking the Trinity Trail and chats with joggers and cyclists who pass by below. She has a set of weights, stretch bands and a mini-trampoline to bounce on. “I made up my mind when the lockdown started that I was going to make it.” 

Len Schweitzer, 91, agrees that exercise is the key. When the Benbrook Y reopened in June, he put on a face mask and scheduled thrice-weekly visits with a trainer. “I really do believe your mental function is dependent on your physical well-being. When you keep your body moving, your psyche gets a boost.” What he’s missed most is “live music performances in a room with people vibrating, sharing an experience together.” 

Herb Schwarz, 90, jokes that he gets exercise and socialization by delivering newspapers to other tenants at Trinity Terrace He takes the elevator to the lobby, picks up copies of the Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News, and delivers them to subscribers on his floor. “My first job was delivering papers, and now it’s my last job,” he chuckles. 

Brigitte Altman, 96, spent the lockdown in the comfort of her own home, where her physician, a gerontologist, made monthly house calls. 

Phone calls with lifelong friends helped Corrine Jacobson, 93, move forward from day to day. Every night at 7 p.m., she telephones her high school classmate Adelene Myers, 94, a longtime congregant at Ahavath Sholom. Both graduated Paschal High School in 1944. “We have our little conversations,” Adelene said, “and we catch up on business.” If they don’t hear from one another at 7 p.m. sharp, they panic. 

Each of these seniors enjoys turning the pages of a good novel. 

Avette Stenzler Covitt, 92, formed a “personal book club” with her daughter, Karen Delavan, who lives in San Antonio, shares her taste in literature and mailed her novels. (Among Avette’s favorites was “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah.) 

Roz recommends all 16 murder mysteries in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Quebec writer Louise Penny. Roz listened on audiobooks and discussed each book with her daughter, Marcia Cohen, who lives in California and reads the hardbacks. 

Edythe was thrilled when the Hulen branch of the public library reopened in July. Also content to curl up with a book is Hattie Lederman Landman, 90. Sadly, her younger brother, Harry, 87, died March 8 in California following a stroke. Hattie lives with her son, Marty, who says his mom is content to read, watch TV and enjoy her cat. 

Dr. Paul Saperstein, 94, a family physician who until two years ago taught at the UNT Health Science Center, says his son, George, brings him page-turners by John Grisham, Wilbur Smith and Ken Follett. “No more medical books,” he says. “I like easy reading.” 

Nothing too deep for Amy Stien, 92, either. “I haven’t tried to learn anything,” she chuckles. “I like to read, thank God. Fiction keeps me occupied.” 

As she spoke, Amy glanced out the window of her condo in Stayton House, a senior living complex. She saw some homeless people on Lancaster Avenue. “This has been really tough on everybody,” she said. “I think, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have a nice place to live and food.’ The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone. I can’t say I didn’t get a little bit despondent through it all” — particularly during the deep freeze in February when the power went out. 

“Four weeks without hot water,” said Adele Arensberg, 92, who also lives at Stayton House. “You made an appointment for a shower on other floors that had generators. I just hope and pray we have a better year.” 

Was there ever a time in their lives comparable to the year of the coronavirus? 

“World War II was difficult, but it didn’t interfere with every single day of your life,” reflected Trudi Post, 96. Trudi, Adelene and Corrine remember ration coupons for beef. Rubber tires, leather shoes, and butter were not available at all. At the store where Arthur worked, customers were limited to a six-pack of Coca Cola. “Even with rationing, no one really suffered from that,” he said.

Another difference is today’s 24-hour news cycle. “It took longer to get news,” said Trudi. “You got the news once or twice a day on the radio and in the newspaper. You continued on with your life and appointments.”

The only comparable experience may have been the polio epidemic. “It just wasn’t widespread like this,” said Avette, who lived in San Antonio when polio flared. “I can remember listening on the radio. They announced block after block where people had polio. We couldn’t go out. We couldn’t see our friends. It’s similar, but it didn’t go on and on like this. And it didn’t affect everybody.” 

Paul, who spent his career in medicine, added, “The polio epidemic was every summer. Polio meant we didn’t gather in close quarters with anybody.” No swimming. No movies. However, Pat Schwarz, Herb’s spouse and a relative youngster at 88, remembers that she did go to the movies during the polio scare. “You were afraid to breathe.” 

The Salk polio vaccine, administered to schoolchildren in 1954, was a godsend. “I’m amazed that so many people don’t want the COVID vaccine,” said Paul. “I can’t understand the logic or lack of logic.” 

“Certainly nothing was as politicized as this,” said Arthur. 

The only nonagenarian with direct knowledge of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic is Herb, whose father, Dr. Edwin G. Schwarz, was the city’s first pediatrician. During World War I, he was chief medical officer at the Canadian airfield in Benbrook. He received a citation from the U.S. Medical Corps because his troops had one of the lowest mortality rates during the pandemic. 

“We get it one of these pandemics every hundred years,” Herb said. “I know I won’t be here for the next one.” 

Reprinted with permission from Beth-Elements, monthly bulletin of Beth-El Congregation, Fort Worth.

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