With her wide smile, polished appearance, and upbeat personality, you would never imagine that Berta Danzig recently celebrated her 99th birthday. Berta’s journey from Tallinn, Estonia to Brookline is a fascinating story as is her connection with Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) throughout the years. First, she received assistance from JF&CS as a new American when she arrived in the US. Then, she volunteered for the Friendly Visitor program, spending time with older adults in need of companionship. Now, Berta has come full-circle with JF&CS - as a visitee in the Friendly Visitor program.
Berta, along with her husband Abram, came to the United States from Estonia in 1991, at the age of 74 with only $109. Her daughter, Gila, had arrived in the US four years earlier in 1987, and her son, Josef, had arrived in 1989. Being Jewish in Estonia, Berta explains, was dangerous. “We weren’t persecuted, but you still want to go where it’s better,” she explains. “We had things, but not a lot of choice. There was censorship.”
Berta’s husband had chosen Boston as the city to which they would relocate because he had heard it was the most culturally rich place in the US and it would be easier to get a job there.
When they first arrived in Boston, they were helped by JF&CS, which, according to Berta, “had a lot of aid for us. People were so kindly to us, they helped us so much. There were doctors who gave us free medicine, and [they gave us] addresses of apartments and English classes. JF&CS blessed us with our lives.”
After they found a place to live and settled in, Berta contacted JF&CS. “You do so much for us. I have to thank you. What can I do?” she asked. “So they sent me to see old people!” she exclaims with a wide grin.
At the age of 75, Berta became a volunteer for the JF&CS Friendly Visitor program, visiting older adults in need of companionship. Her first visitee was a tailor from Poland who spoke only Polish and Yiddish. Fortunately, Berta had been fluent in Estonian, German, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and French and was able to communicate with the man with ease. Next, she was a Friendly Visitor to a Russian woman in a nursing home, and then another Russian woman “who couldn’t walk.” When her husband became ill, Berta directed her attention towards his care and stopped being a Friendly Visitor. Abram passed away in 1995.
In 2007, a case manager at Berta’s building contacted the JF&CS Friendly Visitor program, and Berta started to receive her first visits from JF&CS volunteers. For the past 16 months, she has been visited by JF&CS volunteer Deborah Levine.
“I looked into volunteering in the Friendly Visitor program after my grandmother died at age 100,” explains Deborah. “I missed the presence of an elderly person in my life and thought it might be good to visit someone else’s grandmother. Berta is a wonderful person – she has been through so much, and she remains the most optimistic person I know. She is always cheerful, funny, and up for conversation. Over a cup of tea, she gives me the wisdom of the ages.”
“I go to the big holidays – celebrations – Chanukah and Passover [through the JF&CS Friendly Visitor program] with Deborah,” says Berta.
For her 99th birthday in, Berta celebrated with 20 people, all family members. “I never believed that I would be so old. It’s unimaginable” She remarks. “My wish is to be ok to 11 months [when she will celebrate her 100th birthday]. It will be a good time for a young girl like me.”
Jon Federman is the JF&CS Staff Writer. A practicing attorney for more than 15 years, he is thrilled to bring his legal and persuasive writing skills to the JF&CS Marketing Communications department. Jon has a BA from Tufts University and a JD from Boston College Law School. In his spare time he is an exhibiting photographer and an award-winning cartoonist. Jon lived in London, England for five years before returning to Boston in 2011.