During a visit in 2011 with Alexander Imich, just after his 108th birthday, a mutual friend asked whether he was hoping to set a record. According to official records at the time, he was the third oldest man in the world.
“Would you like to be the oldest man?” I asked.
He thought about that for a moment, smiled, and with a twinkle in his blue eyes, answered, “It could happen, why not?”
Imich lived long enough to hold the title. He was 111 years and 127 days old when he died at home on Sunday. He had fallen ill two weeks earlier at his apartment on West End Avenue in New York City.
When told earlier in 2014 that he was in fact the oldest verified man in the world, he joked, “Well, it isn’t the Nobel Prize.” The previous oldest man was an Italian, some months older than Imich, who died in April. The oldest living person, however, is a Japanese woman, Misao Okawa, who is more than 116 years old, born March 5, 1898.
Imich had lived to see major world events firsthand; he was too young to serve in World War I, but was sentenced to a Soviet labor camp in eastern Russia at the start of World War II. He returned to Czestochowa, in Poland, after the war and learned that most of his family had been wiped out in the Holocaust.
He lived not only a long time, but also a varied, active life. Imich was remarkably vibrant, even in his final years. Well into his 100s, he maintained his lifestyle on his own and went out to do his own food shopping. He was proud to say that his apartment at the Esplanade Manhattan was the only private residence left after it became an assisted living facility. Forced to slow down after receiving a pacemaker in 2011, he was outraged by the notion. “Sometimes my back hurts and I take an aspirin, but there’s never been anything wrong with my heart.”
Still, he maintained constant email contact with friends and associates and scanned the Internet for stories related to parapsychology. He said he became interested in paranormal activity as a young man in Poland in the 1930s and wrote and spoke about such subjects and often about the work of Israeli “mystifier” Uri Geller. Imich edited a book, “Incredible Tales of the Paranormal,” in 1995 and was president of The Anomalous Phenomena Research Center of New York. A visit to his apartment usually turned to that subject. He told stories of spirits, asked visitors about UFOs and displayed his collection of bent spoons — a Geller specialty — though acknowledging he’d never bent one himself.
Imich often jumped up from his comfortable chair and embraced friends with the dexterity of a younger person. He would also move excitedly from chair to bookshelf to search for a piece of information that might add to the conversation. Along with his enthusiasm and drive for knowledge, he questioned visitors vigorously about their own lives with great interest down to the smallest detail. He was prepared for new visitors when they stopped by, already answering the first likely question before most newcomers began speaking.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m so old, and I don’t have an answer,” he said. “It must have something to do with the genes, maybe vitamin supplements. I also practice appetite reduction and don’t eat too much,” he said, adding he was inspired by Indian yogis who seem to live on air. When he lost his savings because of an unscrupulous financial adviser in 2007, he depended on support from New York Times Neediest contributions and food shipments from a UJA-Federation support organization. “I never eat even half of what they give me,” he said with pride. “People eat too much.” He often said only half-joking that perhaps he had added some years by never having children with his wife, Wela, who died in 1986.
Alexander Imich was born on Feb., 4, 1903 in Russian-occupied Czestochowa, Poland, to an affluent Jewish family. His father was a decorator and designer and once built an airstrip in Czestochowa, the famed site of the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
He had vivid memories of his early life in a home with kerosene lamps and chamber pots. “There was no manufacturing, no mass production,” he recalled. “The shoemaker came, took measurements and made the shoes.”
Imich came of age some years after the pogroms that set off a major emigration of Jews from Poland and other Russian territories in the first decade of the 20th century. By the time he attended school, he said, he and other Jewish children mixed freely with Catholic children. But he said anti-Semitism prevented him from joining the Polish Navy or from completing his studies zoology, a life-long passion.
He finally attended the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and received a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1929. He became a manager of a series of chemical facilities in Russian cities, but ran afoul of the Soviet government in the 1930s when he refused to join the Communist Party. He and his wife were sent to Stalin labor camps in Soviet Asia, enduring extreme cold and hardship. When he returned to Czestochowa, he learned his parents and most of the family had died in the Holocaust.
Alex and Wela migrated to New York in 1952. He held a series of jobs as a chemist in the United States before retiring to devote his time to paranormal studies. After his wife’s death he said he never felt alone, surrounded by spirits, including hers, and he never wanted to remarry. “It would have been disloyal,” he said.
There was something else, then, that he thought defined his long life. “I wake up every day with excitement and curiosity. There are so many things to do, so many things to think about. That will never stop.”
Photo courtesy of Chabad.org.