She was born the year Congress approved voting machines for use in federal elections, when Scott Joplin’s jazzy “Maple Leaf Rag” was all the rage, and when, in France, an army captain named Alfred Dreyfus who had been falsely accused of treason, was pardoned.
Evelyn Kozak, thought to be the oldest Jewish person in the world, who was born in 1899 and whose life spanned the entire arc of the 20th century, and then some, died last week in New York two months short of her 114th birthday. Kozak, who had recently suffered a heart attack, was thought to be the world’s seventh oldest person.
On the second floor of a house on a tree-lined street in Kensington on Monday night, more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of their “bubbe.” Small red-haired girls — Mrs. Kozak’s great-granddaughters — played on the floor or smiled shyly at a visitor while their mothers — granddaughters of the woman whose life took her from the Lower East Side to Miami Beach and then to Pittsburgh — leafed through old albums of photographs, clippings, birth certificates and letters that record a life spanning three centuries.
Mrs. Kozak had lived in the Kensington section of Brooklyn for the past several years in a household with a granddaughter, grandson-in-law and, at the time of her death, nine great-grandchildren under the age of 13.
“It was a privilege,” said her granddaughter Brucha Weisberger, with whom Mrs. Kozak had lived for the past three years and three months. “We were [among] the few people in the world lucky enough to have a grandmother with us at that age.”
Mrs. Kozak’s life had begun in New York well over a century prior, and it took many interesting turns before returning her to live with her Brooklyn relatives at the age of 110.
She was born Evelyn Jacobson on Aug. 14, 1899 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her parents, Isaac and Katie Jacobson, had moved from Russia in the 1880s to escape anti-Semitic pogroms. The family owned a hatbox company. Mrs. Kozak was a working woman for most of her life, starting when she was employed in the family business after completing grade school, according to a granddaughter, Ellen Levick of Pittsburgh.
“She worked all her life; she was not a person of leisure, ever,” said Levick.
She had five children, one of whom died in childhood, and three of whom have survived her; 10 grandchildren; 28 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild. She also survived two husbands, Sam Margaretten and Mo Kozak.
For over 40 years she lived in Miami Beach and ran a boarding house there. During those years she went above and beyond to tend to the needs of residents, according to Weisberger.
“She would cook and clean for elderly people at the boarding house who didn’t have anyone to take care of them,” said Weisberger. “I don’t think it was her responsibility as a landlord, but she did.”
Levick recalled spending time as a child in Miami Beach with her grandmother.
“She was a fascinating person, a businesswoman, was always thinking about the whole business side,” said Levick.
That practicality didn’t overshadow her softer side, Levick added. “She was fun … We would walk all around South Beach in the 1950s … When I was maybe 4 she said, ‘What is the most important thing in life?’ I said, ‘Money,’ and she said, ‘Love. It’s love.’ I’ll never forget her saying that.”
Mrs. Kozak moved from Miami Beach to Pittsburgh in 1990 and lived first independently at an assisted living center, then at the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill. The staff there held yearly birthday parties for her.
At her 110th birthday party in 2009, Pittsburgh City Council declared Aug. 5 to be “Evelyn Kozak Day,” saying she was the oldest living Pittsburgher. Shortly afterward, she moved to live with her relatives in Kensington.
As a young wife and mother, Mrs. Kozak lived for some years in Perth Amboy, N.J., where she volunteered as a sort of town scribe, writing letters for people who didn’t read or write well in English. A self-described “voracious” reader, gifted writer and avid Scrabble player, Mrs. Kozak was “extremely intelligent, highly literate,” according to Levick.
“Anybody who needed a letter written, for years and years … would ask her, ‘Could you write this letter for me?’ Because they knew she had such command of the language,” said Levick, who added that her grandmother continued to volunteer as a letter writer well into her 90s.
Levick added, “Her father didn’t believe girls should go to school past a certain age; everything was self-taught past grade school. But she couldn’t get enough of books.”
Her favorite historical figure was reportedly Abraham Lincoln, and her favorite novel was “The Longest Walk” by George Meegan.
In recent years Levick and her New York relatives, who assumed care of Mrs. Kozak, got to know each other better and discovered they shared “the love of the written word, the spoken word, the book,” which Levick believes they got as a family from Mrs. Kozak.
Her grandmother was unfailingly honest and helpful to others, Weisberger said.
Another granddaughter, Sarah Polon, also of Kensington, spoke of her grandmother’s humility.
“One day I was saying to her, ‘You are so amazing,’ and she was like, ‘Oh, my age is just a number.’ I told her, ‘It’s not just your age, it’s that you’re a person who did so many good things in your life.’ That made her happy.’”
“I talked to her and tried to say hi to her every morning,” recalled great-grandson Yona Moshe Weisberger, 10.
A great-granddaughter, Rachel Yehudis Weisberger, 9, said she will remember her great-grandmother’s sense of humor.
“I stood outside the door and listened,” she said. “When she was 113, she still told jokes.”
Weisberger believes her grandmother’s longevity could stem from a blessing for long life she received from the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, in the late 1920s.
“She attributed her long life to that brucha,” said Weisberger. “Bubbe used to joke, ‘The Rebbe blessed me too well.’”