Man who came on 'Exodus' turns 100

Leon Hershlikowicz survived two world wars, the Holocaust and a stint as a prisoner in Siberia.

Leon Hershlikowicz 88 (photo credit: Roee Ruttenberg)
Leon Hershlikowicz 88
(photo credit: Roee Ruttenberg)
It's been a long, tough road to birthday number 100 for Leon Hershlikowicz, but he celebrated it with vigor outside Tel Aviv on Monday. Surrounded by family and close friends, Hershlikowicz enjoyed his birthday by speaking with family members in a Web phone call. When friends and relatives wished him a happy birthday, he responded: "May you live to be 120." When asked by his family if they could lift him up in a chair, he replied: "Why not?" Hershlikowicz's life story is one of perseverance and determination. He survived two world wars, the Holocaust and a stint in Siberia as a prisoner of Russia. Shortly after being born in Boston, Hershlikowicz moved to Poland with his parents. During World War II, while his girlfriend fought with the partisans, he fled to Russia to avoid the Nazi army. It was then that he was arrested and sent to Siberia. After the war, he reunited with his girlfriend, whom he would marry. The two spent a year in a refugee camp in Germany before coming to Palestine aboard the Exodus in July 1947. When he finally made it to Israel, Hershlikowicz became a truck driver in Jaffa and continued driving until he was forced to retire. "They would draft his truck and he would go with it because he wouldn't let them take the truck without him," his daughter Bella Ruttenberg said, laughing at the thought. "He's very special. I don't think they make any more like him now." His family marvels at what their patriarch has done in his life and, more so, what he has continued to do despite his age. Until six months ago, Hershlikowicz and his wife, who passed away two months ago, lived in a fourth floor walk-up in Ramat Gan. Hershlikowicz would carry groceries up to his apartment and often would climb a ladder to put something away in his closet. The couple, at 99 and 90, moved to a ground floor apartment in Kiryat Ono. His daughter said a frustration facing Hershlikowicz now is that he cannot climb a ladder to fix something, but he won't let her do it either. His grandson, Roee Ruttenberg, said up until a few years ago when his grandfather would ride the bus, he would get up from his seat so other elderly riders could sit down. "We would tell him to sit down," he said. "That he's elderly too." Ruttenberg said the party was lovely but bittersweet, since his grandmother wasn't there to share in the festivities. Extended family and childhood friends from the village in Poland in which he grew up attended, as well as other friends of the family. Even his doctor stopped by to pay his respects. Hershlikowicz said he was born in Boston in 1910, so a month ago - after the unveiling of his wife's grave - his family had a small 96th birthday celebration. An extended family member discovered Hershlikowicz's birth certificate in Boston, showing him to be born in August 1906 and not in July 1910, as he had believed. Ruttenberg described his grandfather as an "Old World gentleman" who would not sit while other people stood, and engaged everyone in conversation, from small children to adults. Looking back on his grandfather's life, he said, "I think it's amazing. I don't even know what 100 years is. It's such an abstract concept to us."