An 111-year-old Holocaust survivor who escaped both Nazi persecution and a Soviet gulag to dedicate his life to proving that the neshama, or soul, outlives the body was named as the world’s oldest living man last month.
Alexander Imich, an occult scientist aged 111 and 92 days, was given the title after its previous holder, Arturo Licata, died in Italy on April 24 at the age of 111 years and 357 days — just before his 112th birthday.
Despite setbacks, such as losing his savings in the stock market and losing much of his eyesight to macular degeneration, Imich is described by The New York Times as a stick-thin man with “an enviable shock of hair,” who continues to smile, “eyes dancing.”
When he isn’t busy documenting phantoms and poltergeists, Imich also remains loyal to his Jewish heritage, asking his carers to feed him matzah balls, gefilte fish and chicken soup — with chocolate and ice cream for dessert.
Before being crowned as the world’s oldest man, Imich was known as the oldest man in America, which led Coney Island Chabad director Rabbi Pinny Marozov to seek him out earlier this year.
Just before Imich’s 111th birthday, Marozov went to visit him in Manhattan after hearing that the elderly Jew lived alone. But Imich was in the city’s Roosevelt Hospital after taking a fall. Marozov tracked him down and helped him don tefillin, promising to return to his apartment to affix a mezuzah to the doorframe.
Imich’s Jewish roots run deep: he was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Poland in 1903, nearly four decades before the war that would forever change Jewish life in the country. He told The New York Times he could still remember the day a car was driven through his hometown in Czestochowa, southern Poland, for the first time.
His father, who owned a decorating business, was also an aviation enthusiast who built an air strip for early aviators. Accordingly, his son, who now resides in New York, counts the airplane as the greatest invention in his lifetime.
Growing up in Czestochowa, Imich could not have known that the course of his life would take him from southern Poland through the Soviet Union all the way to Uzbekistan, and eventually to Manhattan. But he was carried by the turbulent tide of 20th-century European history from war to war, from country to country, until he eventually settled in the United States.
When he was just 15, Imich fought in his first war, the Polish-Soviet conflict of 1919-1921. When the war ended, the schoolboy-turned-soldier wanted to stay on and become a captain in the Polish navy, but was barred from doing so because he was Jewish.
“I decided to become a zoologist and traveled to exotic countries in Africa,” he told The New York Times. But after he was unable to advance in zoology, he became a chemistry professor and developed a fascination with the occult and attended séances.
However, his scholarly pursuits were disrupted by the eruption of World War II — and with it, grave danger for Poland’s nearly 4-million-strong Jewish community.
In 1939, when Poland was invaded by the Nazis, Imich fled with his second wife, Wela, to Bialystok, then still under Soviet rule. However, the couple was shuttled off to a gulag, or labor camp, for refusing Soviet citizenship.
Inadvertently, this may have saved their lives. Bialystok was occupied by the Nazis in 1941, and its 50,000 Jews were herded into a small ghetto in the city. Many of those who survived the ghetto conditions were transported to the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps, where they were systematically killed.
Alexander and Wela, meanwhile, were deep inside Soviet territory, far from the Nazis’ grasp. After two years in the camp near the White Sea, near Scandinavia, the two were shipped to Samarkand, in today’s Uzbekistan. Eventually, they were allowed to return to Poland.
But upon completing the long journey from Central Asia, they found out that most of their friends and relatives had died in the Holocaust.
In 1952, the family left the devastation in Poland behind and moved to America, settling in Connecticut and then New York. In the United States, Wela worked as a psychologist; her work inspired Imich to abandon chemistry and delve into parapsychology, while continuing to write books on paranormal phenomena for mainstream scientists and the general public alike.
After Wela’s death in 1986, Imich continued to study the occult. He was an active scholar well into his later years, even handing out a prize for parapsychology research and establishing the Anomalous Phenomena Research Center with the goal of demonstrating the reality of paranormal phenomena.
In 1995, at the age of 92, he published “Incredible Tales of the Paranormal,” continuing his tireless efforts to prove to scientists that the “neshama,” the Jewish term for soul, survives physical death.
The illusionist Uri Geller, a self-styled psychic who met Imich in 1972 after leaving Israel for the United States, told The Jewish Press that Imich’s book was “the most fascinating and unusual book I have ever read in this field [penetrating] the unknown, with the support of many testimonies.”
“I consider him to be a genius,” Geller said. “My only explanation for his longevity is that he knows the secret of how to extract pure energy from the universe and beyond.”
Speaking to The New York Times in his Upper West Side apartment, Imich, who suffers from various health problems and was in the hospital when the title was conferred on him, seemed nonchalant about his old age and newfound title.
“Not like it’s the Nobel Prize,” he said, wheezing and pausing as his hearing aid popped out.
Asked about the secret to his longevity, Imich answered that a combination of “good genes,” giving up smoking, avoiding alcohol, remaining physically active – he used to be a gymnast, he said, and a good one at that – and not having children had probably contributed to his reaching such an old age.
He added that while he ate sparingly, chocolate and ice cream were two of his favorite foods.
“I never thought I’d be that old,” he told the newspaper.
In 2005, he told Life Extension magazine that his father, who wanted to be a doctor but was pressured into running the family business, had taught him to live a healthy lifestyle that included daily exercise.
Though he is the world’s oldest man, Imich is not the oldest person in the world: that would be 116-year-old Misao Okawa, who lives in Japan. Aside from Okawa, there are 66 women in the world who are older than Imich.
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