The world's oldest Jewish person, Evelyn Kozak, whose family fled Russia to escape anti-Semitism in the 1880s, has died at age 113.
Mrs. Kozak died June 11 after suffering a heart attack the day before, her granddaughter Brucha Weisberger said. She was buried next to her parents in a cemetery in New York City.
Mrs. Kozak was the world's oldest documented Jewish person and the world's seventh-oldest person, said Robert Young, a senior database administrator at the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, an organization of physicians, scientists and engineers who validate supercentenarians, or people 110 or older.
While a series of strokes about three years ago left Mrs. Kozak in a wheelchair and paralyzed on her right side, her mind was always sharp, Ms. Weisberger said. For the past three years, Mrs. Kozak had lived with her granddaughter and the granddaughter's husband and children in Brooklyn after a stint in Pittsburgh.
"As old as she was, we really expected her to live forever," said Ms. Weisberger, one of nearly a dozen grandchildren. "She was strong and incredible. We thought she would be going on and on and on."
Mrs. Kozak, who was one of nine children, was born on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Her family had moved from Russia to escape organized anti-Semitic attacks.
She spent much of her adult life in Miami, where she ran a boarding house for many years, fixing meals for her tenants, Ms. Weisberger said.
"Sometimes she would say, 'I always try to help everyone and not hurt anyone,' " Ms. Weisberger said. "And even when they say, 'It's not your business to help someone,' she felt that it was her business."
Mrs. Kozak believed in being truthful and honest, Ms. Weisberger said.
"She always said a good conscience was the secret to a long life," she added.
Although Mrs. Kozak had no formal religious education, she was religious, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath. When she was 110, she started covering her hair, as many traditionally orthodox Jewish women do.
Mrs. Kozak was married twice but had been a widow since 1957. She had five children, 10 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson. Besides New York, she had lived in Perth Amboy, N.J., Miami and Pittsburgh.
Mrs. Kozak moved to Pittsburgh when she was in her 90s. She lived independently in an apartment until age 105. She then moved to Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill before going back to New York City in January 2010.
In 2009, for her 110th birthday, then-Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields proclaimed Aug. 5 as Evelyn Kozak Day in the city.
"She was very down-to-earth, so she accepted it but it didn't mean anything for her," said Sharyn Rubin, director of resident and community services at Charles Morris, who met Mrs. Kozak when she was 108.
"We had a wonderful time," Mr. Shields said. "She was also very interested in Pittsburgh's politics and even showed me an autographed picture of [former mayor] Bob O'Connor. She was an extremely loving person. What a lady!"
"She was just amazing," Mrs. Rubin said. "She used to get tired of us worrying about her. She just smiled and said, 'I'll do it.' "
Mrs. Rubin, who has been a Charles Morris employee for eight years, said Mrs. Kozak had a "wonderful philosophy and a great sense of humor."
"To live so long doesn't make me amazing," Mrs. Rubin recalled the elderly woman having once said to her. She said Mrs. Kozak had the walls of her room covered with pictures of her children and grandchildren. "Everybody asked her what was the secret of her longevity, but she didn't know and often explained that it was because of her values. To me, she was just an inspiration."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Nicolas Dubois contributed to this story.