Portrait of a long life: An original social networker
Centenarian Kate Hecht's secret to long life included social networking to outmaneuver the Nazis
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
There's a lot to remember in a century, and Kate Hecht – 101 years old – laughs apologetically when she says, "I forgot a lot of things ... over the years."
But the memories that shaped her long life, as she proves in a postlunch interview at her retirement community, remain vivid.
In her strong German accent, she recounts paying a smuggler to get her and her young son out of Nazi Germany. The daughter of a Jewish leather merchant, she left behind her comfortable life in Mannheim in 1939, fleeing first to Belgium, then France, then Switzerland. Her husband didn't make it. He was killed in Auschwitz.
Mrs. Hecht remembers, too, her harsh introduction to the United States, arriving in New York in 1946 after the war. Her wealthy relatives there mostly wanted nothing to do with her, she says. A cousin, showing off her lavish apartment, asked Hecht to look over the view of Central Park, asking, "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?" Hecht's chin juts a bit in pride, now, as she recounts her answer: "Yes. I have seen the Black Forest."
She knew how to sew and was able to get a job at a clothing factory. The owner, a fellow refugee, took her under his wing.
"I knew how to handle a sewing machine, but I never [had been] a dressmaker," she says. "He said, 'Don't worry we'll make one out of you.' "
Hecht worked in various jobs in the garment industry. In 1953, she married again, and eventually moved to Baltimore.
"I was lucky," she says of her experiences, "and I have a very good son."
That son – Ernest Feibelman, who escaped the Nazis with her – is now 75, lives nearby, and visits often. While he says his mother has always been healthy, there's another factor she exhibits that has added to her longevity and that experts concur is common to most centenarians: Hecht is social. His mother, he says, has always been a resourceful, gregarious woman.
"She makes friends easily, which of course helped her a great deal in difficult times to make important contacts," he says. "That saved her life. It certainly saved my life."
Hecht traveled a great deal, returning to Europe every year for a reunion with surviving members of her family, taking trips with her second husband, and then after he died, with a close friend. Her family grew – pictures cover her small, neatly appointed room.
"She eventually had grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Mr. Feibelman says. "That sort of life stimulates people."