Gloria Eisenberg remembers what it was like to sleep on a synagogue floor in Kiev, itchy from the insects that crawled through her clothes. She remembers how to play the piano, a skill she picked up in an orphanage not long after. And she still remembers the Russian and Yiddish of her childhood.
They were among Eisenberg’s recollections as she turned 104.
Surrounded by friends and family at the Jewish Council for the Aging’s Misler Center in Rockville last week, Eisenberg celebrated her birthday. She gets around using a walker and maintains an apartment in Silver Spring, though she typically stays with her son, Philip, a dentist, in Potomac.
“I feel very good for my age,” she said. “I’m very proud of myself. I did a lot of walking when I was young, and I’m particular with what I eat.” Her favorites: macaroni and cheese and cake.
Born Olga Morgalevich on Sept. 23, 1913, Eisenberg’s earliest memories are of life on the rural outskirts of Kiev — then a territory of the Russian Empire — living with her sister, two brothers and mother, Fanya, in the home her grandparents owned. “They had one cow, so we had a lot of milk,” she said.
Her father, Aaron, lived for the most part in the United States, ostensibly for reasons related to his shoemaking business.
She still fondly recalls playing in the woods near Kiev. But whatever childhood tranquility existed soon ended. Anti-Jewish pogroms were breaking out, and soldiers returning from the Russian Civil War that took place roughly between 1917 and 1922 were jobless and desperate. “They started robbing homes,” Eisenberg said.
So her mother took the family to Kiev, where they found refuge in a synagogue basement packed with families facing similarly dire circumstances.
“I’m ashamed to say, but I lived in the basement, it was full of bugs,” she said, the memory itself making her scratch her shoulder. “They couldn’t keep us clean.”
But not long after their arrival, Fanya died from typhoid fever, leaving the pre-teenage Olga to fend for herself in orphanages until word of her plight reached her father. He arranged for her to travel to the United States, and so at about the age of 13, she boarded a ship sailing from the Netherlands port of Rotterdam to New York.
When she disembarked, she was in a new place with a new name, Gloria. She didn’t know the language. But, she said, “I was happy to be alive.”
She traveled from New York to Washington, where her father lived with a wife and family. She described him as “a tall, thin man.”
During her journey to Washington, she met the man she would marry, a recent immigrant from Poland named Joe Eisenberg. Their courtship blossomed as the two attended “Americanization” school, and in 1932 they married, settling in the District of Columbia’s Petworth neighborhood and attending Beth Sholom Congregation.
Joe worked hanging wallpaper and driving a cab while Gloria tended to their two sons. She remembers a Washington far different from its current incarnation, having worked as a saleswoman at Lansburgh’s department store, in what is now Chinatown, in the years leading up to its 1973 closure.
Eventually, the Eisenbergs would move to Silver Spring, where she is now the proud grandmother of four and great-grandmother of eight. For her birthday, they gave her hats with “GG is 104” stitched on.
At 104, Eisenberg is, by all accounts, as gregarious and sharp as ever. Most of all, she’s proud — of her life, of her heritage, and of her family. She’ll quickly tell you how good at reading her great-grandson is and brag about how her adult grandchildren went to college.
Even so, her own education is something she still thinks about.
“Sometimes I worry because I never finished high school,” she said. “But I’m thankful that my children could get an education.”