Goldie Steinberg, the sixth-oldest person in the world and the oldest Jew, passed away Sunday at age 114 in Long Beach, N.Y. She was just two months shy of her 115th birthday and remained mentally sharp until her last moments.
Born Oct. 30, 1900 in Kishinev in the Russian Empire (today, Chisinau, Moldova), Steinberg was a survivor of the infamous 1903 Kishinev pogrom, during which 47 Jews were killed and hundreds more wounded; a second, smaller one, took place in 1905. Steinberg was likely the last living survivor of the massacres.
“We were saved by a Russian neighbor who made sure nothing would happen to us,” she recalled during an interview in the fall of 2013. “He told them that we weren’t Jewish.”
Steinberg was one of eight children born to Chazkel and Devorah Garfunkel, Chazkel being a respected member of Kishinev’s enormous Jewish community.
“My father dealt with customers, and he always had a name for honesty; he was known as an honest man,” Steinberg recalled, adding that when her father offered to serve as a guarantor for a 1,500 ruble loan, the lender trusted him immediately. “He said ‘[Chazkel] doesn’t need to sign; I trust him.’”
Steinberg moved to America in 1923 together with her two sisters, Raizel and Sura, where they were taken in by their father’s brother, Max Garfunkel. She lived with her uncle and aunt in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., until she met and married fellow Kishinev immigrant Philip Steinberg in 1932. The couple had two children, Don Sargent and Ann Teicher. Steinberg’s husband worked as a jeweler until his passing in 1967, after which Steinberg continued to support her family as a seamstress, working until she retired at 80.
“My grandmother’s life—surviving the pogroms, losing siblings in the Holocaust—it was a history lesson,” says her grandson Peter Kutner. “She was a very selfless person; she always thought of others. She lived on her own in Bensonhurst until she was 104 and refused to move in with my mother because she didn’t want to be a burden on her. That tells you something about her.”
At 104, Steinberg moved into the Grandell Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Long Beach, N.Y., where she was known for her warmth and consideration for others. Just prior to her 113th birthday, the staff at Grandell traded stories about “Goldie,” including one about her waking up in the middle of the night to offer her coughing roommate a throat candy.
“She was a tremendously special person,” says Rabbi Eli Goodman, co-director of Chabad of the Beaches in Long Beach. “Each year there was a birthday party for her. I attended a number of them, and children from the local Jewish schools would come and sing, and bring her presents. It wasn’t just her old age that made her special; everyone truly looked up to her.”
When Kutner got a call yesterday from the doctor at Grandell telling him that his grandmother wasn’t feeling well, he drove over with his wife and mother.
“A lot of the family was there, and we Facetimed with those who weren’t, so they could all say their last goodbyes,” he says. “After she spoke to my cousin Steven and we shut the phone, we saw that she was gone. She waited until the last person.”
In addition to her two children, Steinberg is survived by four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.