Izydor Einziger feels like he’s 85.
For perhaps anyone else, that number would feel a little underwhelming, concerning even. But to Einziger, a Holocaust survivor who will turn 103 on April 17, 85-years-old is pretty good.
“When I was 85, I was in good shape,” he said.
To celebrate his longevity, Lions Gate Life Plan Community in Vorhees, New Jersey, where Einziger resides, honored him and 11 other centenarians on April 12 by inducting them into the Lions Gate 100 Club. The residents, who, according to Lions Gate, make up 1% of the state’s centenarians, received special proclamations — created by New Jersey General Assembly members Pamela R. Lampitt and Louis D. Greenwald and state Sen. James Beach, and presented by Voorhees Mayor Michael Mignogna and Deputy Mayor Jason Ravitz. Ten of the 12 centenarians are Jewish.
“While we recognize all of our residents as part of our Lions Gate family, those who have passed the 100-year mark have such a rich history to share with us. We are honored to hear and learn from their life stories,” Lions Gate CEO David Thompson said in a press release.
Now well into the three digits, Einziger is less concerned with the type of birthday cake he’ll be having and more concerned with today’s political climate: The war in Ukraine bears an eerie resemblance to his childhood in German- and Russian-occupied Poland on the brink of World War II.
Einziger was born in Mytarka, a small Polish village in 1919 when the world was recovering from a different pandemic, the Spanish Flu. He eventually, after moving a couple of times as a child, grew up in German-occupied Krakow, where he was no stranger to antisemitism.
His family moved to the large city to accommodate Einziger’s education; he graduated from gymnasium, similar to a college preparatory school, in 1937. Though he tried to pursue higher education at a Polish institute, he was not allowed because he was Jewish, and instead opted to attend a Jewish school nearby.
Einziger’s higher education was short-lived. Two years later, the dawn of World War II prompted his family — his mother, father, older sister Renia Einziger Meir, and husband Beno Meir and baby — to make plans to flee.
Meir, a lawyer at a large firm, was fortunate enough to have contacts and a potential safe house in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. The couple and baby were to leave, but only Einziger’s sister and baby niece made it to their correct train. Meir was supposed to join them a few days later but was waylaid.
“Nothing works according to plans,” Einziger said.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Einziger awoke to the sounds of planes flying overheard and bombs dropping over the city. The bombings surprised him — he believed that the U.S. military prowess was strong enough to quell concerns of war in Poland.
His parents encouraged him to leave immediately, while they stayed behind, too old to travel. Einziger fled with a few school friends as bombs still dropped on the city, though returned home 10 days later, disheveled and tired, after being captured by Nazi officers and forced to clean their camp before being let go.
Einziger stayed home for a month, but his time at home was marked by strife: His parents had to buy essentials on the black market; they weren’t allowed to listen to the radio or television; school friends began to vanish.
When his family learned that young Jewish people were being forced into hard labor, they knew it was time for Einziger to once again leave home. Einziger remembered the gravity of the moment when his parents saw him off at the train station, where Einziger fled to eastern Poland.
“The events are dry,” Einziger said. “The feelings a person goes through — to look at your parents and feel in your heart that you might not see them again, and you go out and you don’t know what will be — it’s a terrible feeling.”
Einziger’s escape plans were eventually foiled again, and he spent years working odd jobs at a railroad, shoveling snow off the tracks; he worked as a bacterial technician at a polyclinic in Lvov, thanks to his mother’s cousin, who was a doctor, but was later deported to a labor camp in 1941.
Until 1945, he traveled across Russian-occupied Poland, reuniting with some family members and separated from others.
Of his time under Russian control, Einziger offered a grim summary and potential warning: “Russia never changes.”
In 1946, he returned to Krakow for the last time, and he learned of the death of his parents, sister and niece. He visited the synagogue there, where the walls of the dilapidated shul were marked with names and safe house addresses and pleas of, “Don’t forget us.”
In 1947, Einziger left Poland for Paris, France, and arrived in America in 1948 on the RMS Queen Mary.
Einziger made his living in the U.S. as a textile and children’s store owner, but found his purpose surrounded by family members; he has a great-granddaughter who is 3, and his daughter made plans to fly up from Florida to visit him on his birthday, despite also having plans to come and visit in June as well.
Though he attributes his longevity to good health, exercise and good genes, Einziger is firm in his belief that he wouldn’t have survived without the companionship he had while surviving WWII.
“Be agreeable with other people,” Einziger said. “Don’t make enemies; make friends. This is the essence of life.”