Generations: Betty Portje

When you’re 105 years old, you’ve seen some things.

Things like WWII. Hitler and Mussolini. Police dragnets in Paris. Book burnings. Concentration camps. The Nuremberg trials. The rise of labor unions of New York. Pearl Harbor. The establishment of the state of Israel.

Betty Portje sits in a chair in her tiny room at The Redwoods in Mill Valley and fans her memories out into the air like a magician with a new deck of cards—shiny, rich in color and detail, in perfect sequence. Her German accent is distinct; her diction is precise.

Growing up in Bavaria, Betty was visited by a foreshadowing of what her life would be made of.

“There was a neighborhood boy who would let the air out of my bike,” she says, her clear blue eyes looking into the distance as she sits in her little room at The Redwoods in Mill Valley.

“He did to me whatever he could because I was Jewish. One day, he threw a little stone at me, and I still have the scar under my brow. I was very, very angry. And I said to my father, ‘I am going to take a bigger stone!’

"And my father was a wonderful, wise man, and he said, ‘No, you don’t take a bigger stone, because if you take a bigger stone, then he will take a bigger stone.’” And I remember that very, very well. He put a compress on my head and said, ‘Never forget, one day we will have our own land, and this will not happen again.’”

At 15 years old, Betty quit school to help support the family. She learned bookkeeping, German shorthand and later, English shorthand, with the help of her British father. These skills would help carry her through life.

One of Betty’s first jobs at a cigarette factory was cut short by the darkening influence of Hitler. “It was 1933. One day, the door opened and two men came in and said we have to leave. The business was being taken over by the German government. The manager was Jewish. He didn’t have time to take his coat or his briefcase. He had to leave immediately. And I took my bag, and they said, ‘Miss, you can stay,’ because I didn’t look Jewish. And I said, ‘But I am Jewish,’ and I took my bag and I left.”

Shortly thereafter, Betty’s family moved to Paris to join her brother, who was studying at the Sorbonne. She discovered that life for the Jews was not much better.

“The situation for refugees in Paris was very, very bad. You know, the French would have dragnets. They would cordon off a street from one end to the other, and sweep, sweep, sweep through, and if people didn’t have papers, they were taken to the camps, not far from Paris.”

Betty’s mother opened a restaurant that would become a second home for Jewish refugees. “It was kosher food I think we had 10 or 12 tables. My mother cooked and I helped with everything. The people who came looked at my mother like their mother. Some people paid, some people couldn’t pay.”

Ever in search of a safer and more peaceful life, Betty’s family moved to Trieste, Italy. “A friend of the family lived there and wrote to us that we should come, because the Italians were wonderful—even under Mussolini. We heard that you could go to school, that the Jewish community was very receptive.”

Betty’s boyfriend, who had followed her to Paris from Germany, went first.

“This was very funny,” she says with a soft laugh. “He wrote, ‘When you come, we have to get married.’ Because in Italy, you couldn’t live together without being married. My boyfriend had a furnished room on the 6th floor, and the Chief Rabbi of Trieste was on the 5th floor. So before I came, he went to the Rabbi and said that his fiancé is coming and he wanted to get married."

“So I came, and my boyfriend went down and said I was here, and the rabbi said, yes, you should come down and bring all your papers. He looked at all my papers and said he cannot marry us because I was missing one paper — namely, from Germany, that said I’d never been in prison. That was in 1936.”

“I didn’t feel like going back for that paper,” Betty deadpans with a faint smile. “So every morning, at 8 o’clock, the rabbi left for work. And every morning at 8 o’clock, I came down the stairs. This went on for 10 days, until he said, ‘Come on down, I’m going to marry you.’”

The family lived in Trieste until 1938, when they were finally able to obtain American visas and move to Kew Gardens in Queens, New York, in hopes of finding—finally—a peaceful life.

“We came on a Friday and our relatives said we should read the New York classifieds. There was an ad for a governess needed to speak French for a 6 year old. So I called up and got the address. Mind you, we came Friday, and that was a Monday. Over the weekend, we tried out the NY subway. We had to find out how I got to work!”

On her second day in America, Betty’s hope for a better life was threatened.

“Let me tell you a little story. We were between broadway and West End on 100th street. On the corner was a papa momma store, an Italian store who had fruits, vegetables newspapers, ice cream, you name it. So Saturday morning, we had an awful lot of small change we had brought over, and I went to this store. And I said, ‘I wanted two oranges.’"

“And the man said, ‘For Jews?’”

“And I lost my temper.” I said, “‘How dare you! I come from Europe. You mean to say, you have oranges for Jews?’”

“And the door opens and Mama Rosa came in Italian —she was so Italian — She said ‘Cara Mia!’” Her husband mumbled to her and she took a plate and a glass and a knife and an orange and she cut it and squeezed it and said, “You see, this what is juice!” With that, Betty’s hopes returned.

Betty and her husband settled into life in America and she eventually began work in a gloves factory that made silk, leather and cotton gloves.

“The bosses called me ‘Kleinchick,’ because I was very small and I was Jewish and they were Jewish. This means ‘you are very small and cute.’ I couldn’t sew and so they made me an examiner.” She recalls with a laugh, “And the women cursed me! They said to me, ’Why did Hitler let you out!?’ — because with the silk, it was very hard to do it right under the machine. But God forbid if I made a mistake.”

Then world history took another turn. “On the Sunday of Pearl Harbor, we were having a shower for one of the girls. The phone rang. It was my husband calling. And he said ‘Pick up the radio, quick quick!’ All I heard was Roosevelt saying, ‘We are at war.”

“So I rushed home and one of my bosses called and said, ‘Can you be at the plant tomorrow morning at 7 am?’ And I went there and there were already mechanics there to change the machines—and by 8 o’clock there were already bundles of pre-cut shirts and pre-cut materials for uniforms.”

“Most of these women were from the lower east side and all kinds of immigrants, and they helped each other and shared their sandwiches, and that was the beginning of the unions. But it was before the big fire on the Lower East Side.”

After her stint at the factory came to and end, Betty took a job at a company that exported and imported pharmaceuticals. After that, she reported to work as a bilingual secretary for a psychiatrist—a job that left an indelible mark on her soul.

“I came to his office on Madison and 67th street, and he tried to tell me what my job was. He was asked by the Germans to examine people who had been in concentration camps. These people made applications for restitution. Germany had a really amazingly generous restitution program and his job was to call them in to examine them and diagnose them and classify them for restitution. These people had to prove to the Germans that they were in concentration camps. And I was supposed to take down their case histories.”

“The very first woman came in. I greeted her and it was cold, and I said to her, ‘Can I have your coat?' She said ‘No,’ and I knew I had to be very, very careful. And then I said ‘I’d like to write things down.’ I asked if she wanted to speak German or Yiddish. She sat down, opened her coat, and I took down her name, where she was born and family, and then I asked her, ‘Do you have children? And she said, ‘I couldn’t have children, because I was in the Mingele experiments.’   The doctor operated on the women without anesthesia. To know about it was already awful, but to meet someone…”

“‘After the first day, I sat at my desk, and I broke down. The doctor came out of his office, and I said, ‘I cannot do it. I simply cannot do it.’ He said—he was so kind—he said, ‘Don’t forget — these people suffered terribly, and we need to help them.”

So that’s what Betty did. She stayed, doing that work, for 12 years.

Betty went onto work for two doctors, until they both retired. And then as she raised her two daughters, Barbara and Kathy, she spent many years working with refugees. She and her husband separated when she was 70, which she describes as “a very friendly separation.”

Eventually, Betty decided it was time to retire herself.

“At 82, I gave up my car, I put my skis away — I was a very ardent skier with my whole family—And I decided to get myself an education.” 

And that’s what Betty did. For six years, Betty dedicated herself to Jewish studies at Queens College.

“So many funny things that happened at school. First of all, when I first saw the schedule, I read it and wanted to take all the classes. And on the bottom it said, ‘Seniors, if you need to learn about this and that, professor has open house at such.’ And I said to myself, “They really welcome us, they really like us! Little did I know, it was the senior class!”

Was she the oldest person in class? “Nobody ever mentioned age,” She says with a smile.

In 2002, Betty moved to in Marin to be nearer to one of her daughters.

“When I moved here, my belongings were lost in transit from New York. I did a lot of sculpting, and most of it was lost. I made what you see here. So I was depressed. What saved me was this — I passed a table where they were a committee for peace, and they said, oh come on, we need members. It was a time when Bush talked about weapons of mass destruction. I stepped right into that. And I became a member and I became very, very active.”

“This was 16 years ago. I helped create the organization, I was one of the founders. But then came a time when they attacked Israel. I felt there was an underlying anti-semitism. Also, there was so much anti-Israel from outside. That hurt me. And I tried to justify the behavior of the Israelis, because they were always attacked. They had to secure their borders. But with Netanyahu, now, the government hurts me. My main hope is peace. They should get out of the occupied territories. It was a terrible provocation to move the embassy.”

*                                              *                                              *

As Betty sits in her room so very far from her early days in Bavaria, she is surrounded by photos and piles of papers, and files with large-print labels to ease the burden of her macular degeneration. She is also surrounded by a series of small and large sculptures of women, sculptures one could see in a San Francisco gallery. That’s because somewhere along the way, Betty also became a sculptor.

Betty’s face is amazingly absent of lines, her full head of thick hair is still mostly dark with only shades of grey.

How is Betty’s hair not white?

“I don’t know. I can’t see it.”

How does it feel to be 105? “I don’t know. I don’t feel any different. I can see. I can chew.

What’s her secret? “I have no secrets. I am an open book.”

Betty wonders about her future. “I have a decision to make. My hearing aids are broken and it will cost thousands to replace. I am 105!”

Betty also wonders about the future of our country. “Every Tuesday night, the grandson of FDR, who has a son who is a rabbi, comes to read to us the New York Times those of us who cannot read anymore. Last week he came and said ‘I will start with the terrible news first. There are 1,500 children missing from their parents. When I heard that, I was beside myself. Immediately, Germany came to me. I was deeply affected by it."

As she has all her life, Betty worries about the state of Judaism. “I feel very very strongly about it. I tell you, I am very very sad when I hear the jewish names in criminal cases and in all these sexual assault cases. I know one thing. When there’s a newcomer here and there’s a Jewish name, I ask: are you Jewish? And what I notice, what I know, is that I am most comfortable, here at the Redwoods, with Jews.”

Having said that, Betty appreciates the gifts of her long life, including the joys brought to her by life with her two daughters, 5 grandchildren (one a graduate of Jewish Community High School of the Bay) and two great grandchildren. Her entire family traveled from all over the country to share her 105th birthday.

Betty’s advice to living a good life echoes the words of her father all those years ago when she was a little girl with that stone’s gash on her head, still visible below her hairline.

“I tried to teach my children that when they are angry, to get it out of their system. Never to stay angry, but to talk it over. Because anger is one of the worst emotions we have. My main hope is peace. Be generous. If you think you are wrong, be generous enough to go and admit it. And tolerance. Don’t judge others, but instead, always ask why.”

As a member of Rodef Sholom, Betty still enjoys attending services. She remembers when she was asked to honored as the oldest member of the congregation, along with the youngest member, a days-old baby.

“I don’t know,” she says matter-of-factly, “I think it was 5 years ago, when I was 100.”

After a lifetime of struggle visited upon her by being Jewish, Betty continues to feel resolute about her faith. “It is my upbringing.”

Does she continue to be an observant Jew?

“No, not any more, it’s too hard.” And then after a pause, she fixes her visitor with a soft gaze and a clear eye to the future of her heritage and says, “But I did wonder why you came on a shabbat.”