Mary Hoffman, 101, still remembers coming to America from Russia in 1912, arriving on a ship the same week the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic.
She's one of three centenarians featured by Willard Scott on NBC's "Today" show who talked about immigrating to this country many years ago.
|Mary Hoffman arrives in America, 1912|
"I was 5 years old," Mary said in a recent interview. "They knew I could sing good, and at 5 o'clock in the morning they would go through the boat with lunches and stuff like that, and they would throw me a bun or something to eat, you know, something good."
In return, Mary and her grandfather sang religious songs.
"I know I sang a lot, because whenever they wanted us to sing for 'em, we would sing," she said. "At that time, you was glad when you had something to eat, and we were awful poor, and if somebody fed you something, you appreciated it."
Mary, her parents and her grandfather settled in Michigan, but the rest of her family never made it out of Russia.
"My grandma was on the boat ready to come to America, and they wouldn't let her over here because she had sore eyes," Mary said. "They had a son that had bad eyes, too, and they wouldn't let him come, either, so they stayed home, grandma and the boy and his wife."
Mary's family was searching for a better life; Edith Tucker's family was searching for a safer one.
Edith, 100, and her mother fled Russia's Jewish pogroms in 1925. They escaped to Poland and then to Cuba in hopes of joining her two brothers in Brooklyn.
"One of my brothers was able to bring my mother into this country, but he could not bring me in," Edith said. "I was only 17 years old at the time. I was left in Cuba with a very good friend, and the only way I could get into America was if an American citizen married me and brought me in as his wife."
That's where a distant relative she had never met entered the picture. The son of Edith's mother's uncle agreed to marry Edith with the understanding they'd go their separate ways once she was here. Only, it didn't work out that way.
|Edith & Herman Tucker, 1925|
"He did come to Cuba, and we got married in court," she said, "but then he went back, and he said to my brother, 'When your sister comes in, I'm going to marry her, and don't worry, I'll take good care of her.' And when I got my visa and came in, we got married."
Edith and Herman Tucker were married for 45 years until he died in 1970.
"It was a little awkward at first because I couldn't speak English, and he couldn't speak Jewish [Yiddish] very well, but somehow we understood each other, and I made sure to learn English as fast as I could," she said. "I had a wonderful life with him. We brought into this world three wonderful children."
Another centenarian forced to escape persecution against the Jews was 100-year-old Regina Picker. Regina, her husband Gustl and her parents lost their apartment and Gustl lost his job as a textile designer after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. They feared being carted away to concentration camps.
"Each time the doorbell or the telephone rings, we hardly dare to respond, fearing the worst," her father wrote at the time.
In 1939, Regina and Gustl fled Vienna for England; her parents joined Regina's brother in New York.
"When I left Austria, it was horrible," Regina said in an interview. "But we were lucky."
In England, ironically, Regina and Gustl were sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man in 1940 because of their Austrian ancestry. They were considered enemy aliens.
|Regina & Gustl Picker, 1935|
"Interesting that 80 percent of all Germans and Austrians interned were Jewish and certainly not Nazi sympathizers," Regina's niece noted in an e-mail.
Friends and neighbors took care of Regina and Gustl's house and possessions while they were interned for about six months. They were released in 1941 and came to America in 1956, where Gustl continued his life's work as a textile designer.
"We came to America where my husband got another position," Regina said. "I was happy."
If you know of a centenarian who's had a brush with history over the past century, please tell us a little bit about it in the comments section below and be sure to fill in your return e-mail address so we can get back to you for more details.