Until 120!

For Maria Pogonowska the Jewish expression "until 120" may become a reality. She turned 110 on Oct. 30.

old age 88 224 (photo credit: )
old age 88 224
(photo credit: )
Pogonowska's piercing blue eyes and infectious smile indicate that she is still lucid, even though she can only remember how to speak in her native Polish. Her daughter Janina Goldhar, who serves as her translator, says she's in pretty good shape for a woman her age. "I always looked for ways to keep my mind active," begins Pogonowska, who these days stays close to her Ganei Tikva home. "I liked to take on interesting work that kept me happy and busy." Another of the secrets to her longevity, she says, is her loving and ever growing family. "I have a wonderfully supportive family," says the mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and, now, great-great-grandmother. The dedication of her 79-year-old daughter may stem from the fact that they relied on each other to survive the Holocaust, supported one another during their aliya and are companions in their old age. "We have not only spent our whole lives together," Goldhar points out. "We also went through a terrible experience together and survived it." BORN IN Poland in 1897, Maria, nee Asterblum, grew up in a secular Jewish household. Her parents were not wealthy, says Goldhar but they were comfortable and extremely liberal. Despite the times, her lawyer father and housewife mother did not object to the younger of their two daughters pursuing a career in academics, especially a science subject. The first woman to complete a doctorate in physics at Warsaw University - in 1924 - Pogonowska continued to work in the institute's research department, a job that would eventually help to save her life. She met and married Mierczyslaw Proner in 1927 and gave birth to Janina a year-and-a-half later. "My father was called up for army service right at the outbreak of the war," recalls Goldhar. "That was the last time we ever saw him. We later found out that he'd died in a Russian [POW] camp. "I don't know if my mother is the oldest person in the country, but I'm pretty sure she has been a widow longer than anyone else in Israel." (The Ministry of Pensioners' Affairs says there are more than 600 people older than 100.) "Most of the Jews moved into the ghetto then," says Goldhar, "but my mother made the decision in 1940 that we would leave our house and stay on the Aryan side of the wall." That was when Goldhar's childhood friend, Malgorzata, and her family stepped in and helped them. "Her [Malgorzata's] mother, Maria Szulislawska Palestar, was good friends with [Nobel Peace Prize winner] Irena Sandlar, who helped many Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Maria helped secure false papers for us," she says. The two took on the name of Pogonowska, a decidedly non-Jewish name that would raise the least suspicions as to who they really were. Even after the war, the two continued to use that name and for Maria, it's the name she still uses. Moving from place to place throughout the war, Goldhar says that thanks to her mother's resourcefulness, the two managed to eke out a meager living selling food staples to shops. "The work she was doing was very dangerous," she says. "Because she had worked at the university, many people knew her and there was always the danger that she would be recognized. On the other hand, perhaps this is why we survived - because she was roaming around freely no one suspected that she might really be a Jew, and we were able to earn money and eat." Not long before the war ended, the two women were sent to work in a Polish labor camp, and when they returned to Warsaw in 1945, Goldhar says they discovered that all their close relatives had been killed. "We looked for everyone," she recalls. "But we soon discovered that none of them - my grandmother, my mother's sisters, my father's mother and her sister - had come back from the camps." Goldhar adds, however, that her mother always lived in hope that her father might return one day. Even today, Pogonowska keeps a portrait of her husband above her bed and continues to wear her wedding band. "We only found out that he had died in a Soviet camp much later, in the 1990s, when [Soviet president Mikhail] Gorbachev handed over information to the Polish government on the fate of Polish soldiers killed in the war," she says. FOLLOWING the war, Pogonowska was approached by her former Warsaw University colleagues and asked to return to her old position. However, her gratitude at being saved during the war led her to a higher calling, says Goldhar. And instead, she decided to turn her attention to helping those who had been hit hardest by the war - Warsaw's children. "It was an orphanage mostly for non-Jewish children and those whose parents could no longer support them economically," says Goldhar, acknowledging that many from the former Jewish community in Warsaw decided to make aliya at that time. "My mother was so busy creating the orphanage - together with Maria Szulislawska Palestar - that she was not interested in moving to Israel." She adds that the orphanage her mother set in motion still exists. "I had my family and we were both busy working," she explains of the decision to continue living in Poland even after the Jewish community there had pretty much disintegrated. "When we did decide to move to Israel, my mother was already in her 70s and retired. It was a very difficult decision for her, she knew that she would have to forgo her independence and that learning a new language from scratch would be extremely difficult." However, Goldhar, who went on to study medicine, says, "she did not want to be separated from me." The year was 1968 and Pogonowska, Goldhar, her husband and their two teenage daughters moved here. "Although it was not always easy for him to put up with my mother," says Goldhar of her husband Yisrael, an electrical engineer who passed away two years ago, "he was very helpful and always understood that we could not be separated. "[Making aliya] was hard for my mother. She really lost her independence here and, even though she knew six languages, she had to start learning a new one from the beginning." But with her drive and intelligence, Pogonowska picked up the language quickly and until a few years ago could get by in everyday situations. She also became immersed in the ex-Polish community in the Tel Aviv area and in helping her offspring. "When my oldest daughter got married in 1974 and had my first grandchild, my mother looked after her," says Goldhar, who found work as a medical lecturer at Tel Aviv University. "She wanted to keep herself busy." Fully dressed, complete with a watch and an ornate antique broach, Pogonowska is not interested in the kudos of her long and colorful life. And, she refuses to get philosophical, playing down the magnitude of her achievements. Asked how she views her life and what she believes her greatest accomplishments have been, she replies simply: "What?! Me? I am a miskena [poor old soul]. I did not achieve that much at all. I don't feel like I did anything big in my life." "People always ask my mother what the secret to her long life is," finishes Goldhar, "and she always answers that it was having me nearby."