Evelyn Kozak’s life reflected the experiences and beliefs of many Jewish immigrants to the United States — and those of their children — at the turn of the 20th century.
She was born one of nine children in New York City in 1899. Her parents came to the United States in the late 19th century after fleeing from the Cossacks in Russia.
She lived by the creed “there’s no such thing as a person who is very honest, you’re either honest or you’re not honest,” according to her granddaughter Ellen Levick.
And she believed having a clear conscience allowed her to sleep better and contributed to her longevity.
Kozak, the oldest living Jew, and a former resident of Pittsburgh, died Tuesday, June 11, in Brooklyn, N.Y., after suffering a heart attack. She was 113 years old.
She was the oldest documented Jewish person and the seventh-oldest person in the world, according to the Gerontology Research Group, a Los Angeles-based research group that validates the ages of so-called “supercentenarians” — people older than 110 years old.
Levick, a Pittsburgh businesswoman, remembered her grandmother as a person who loved anything to do with language and learning and as a voracious reader. Her favorite game was Scrabble because she always won; she could pull out words that nobody else knew or understood.
“She was always really smart,” said Levick, noting that Kozak taught herself because her father took her out of school when she was young.
In fact, people would ask Kozak to write letters for them because she had such a great command of the English language, Levick said.
Kozak remembered the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. She felt the tragedy personally because some family friends died in the maritime disaster.
Kozak always did her best to help people, Levick said, and she was generous.
“She was the type that gave everything away,” her granddaughter said. “She didn’t really want anything for herself.”
Possessing business acumen, Kozak handled the payroll for her father’s hatbox manufacturing company when she was just 13 years old. She also went door-to-door selling neckties for a time. Levick, who owns Allure fashion and accessory boutique on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield, recalled that her grandmother wished she were younger so that she could work in her store.
“Every day she would ask me how was business,” said Levick. “She wanted to hear all of the stories.”
Married twice during her lifetime, Kozak outlived both husbands and was a widow since 1957. She had five children, 10 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson.
Kozak moved to Pittsburgh in 1990 after living in Miami for 50 years, where she ran a boardinghouse. In Pittsburgh she lived at the Riverview Towers apartments and later moved into the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
On Kozak’s 110th birthday, Aug. 14, 2009, then City Council President Doug Shields read a proclamation designating the day as “Evelyn Kozak Day” in the City of Pittsburgh.
Shields remembered Kozak’s excitement that day, and how she proudly showed him an autographed photo of the late Mayor Bob O’Connor.
Even though Shields only met Evelyn for two hours, she left an impact on him.
“There are some things you do that are special at the moment and then 10 years later you forget about it,” said Shields. “You don’t forget meeting Evelyn.”
Kozak clung to her Jewish roots, observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher. She left Pittsburgh three years ago and moved back to Brooklyn where she stayed with Chasidic relatives and became more religious, according to Levick.
Being the oldest living Jew, Kozak’s family often received requests for interviews with her. At first, they obliged, then they began to worry about the evil eye because of so much attention, and eventually stopped granting interviews.
Several strokes paralyzed Kozak on her right side and left her dependent on a wheelchair. But Levick said that Kozak remained just as bright as always until the end.
“You meet certain people, and they have this look in their eye — that spark, that twinkle,” Shields said. “She had that quality about her.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)