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Jewish Journal

Centenarian Recalls Steps of Survival

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

April 15, 2004 | 8:00 pm

When she was in her 30s, Hansi Goetter developed a mysterious illness. Although her doctors couldn't determine the cause, they told her she had only a few months to live.

That was 70 years ago. Last month, Goetter celebrated her 104th birthday in the company of her daughter, Erica Korody, and her many friends and admirers at Westwood Horizons retirement residence in Westwood.

Smartly dressed in a blue pants suit and brightly colored striped blouse, Goetter smiled as residents paid tribute and a pianist played music from past eras. She even danced a few steps.

"You're my inspiration," one resident -- about 90 years old -- told Goetter, "You're in better shape than I am."

Goetter not only defied the odds of those long-ago doctors and today's actuaries, but also beat the odds by eluding the Nazis during World War II.

Born in 1900 in the German town of Manheim, Goetter remembers a happy, uneventful childhood. Her family was neither wealthy nor poor, but she had opportunities to ice skate regularly in the winter and play tennis in the summer.

She married Richard Goetter, a young man from the same town, in 1921. Richard started a business, and the couple had a daughter, Erica. Before long, however, things began to change. They decided to leave Germany because of the growing anti-Semitism, especially alarming at school.

"I wouldn't want a child educated in a country like that," she said.

The family moved to Belgium in 1936. And for a while, things were pleasant again. "I liked it there," Goetter remembered. But the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1941 and soon after came for all the Jewish men in town. Richard and others were incarcerated, and most of the Goetter's property was confiscated.

A few days later, Richard appeared at the door at midnight. An hour later, with only three small suitcases, the family fled to the south of France. From France they traveled to Spain and Portugal, always wondering if they could outrun the Nazis. At last, the Goetters received their papers for the United States.

"We were lucky," said Goetter, noting that her family had all the necessary documents and had managed to spirit out some money as well. "There were times when we had nothing to eat. But it was no different than what others had to go through. Those were terrible times for Jews."

The Goetters arrived in New York in July 1941, where friends greeted them at the boat and helped them get acclimated to their new homeland. Richard, who had been educated in Switzerland, soon found work. In time, he became the manager of an import-export business.

Erica eventually married, moved to California and had three sons, while the senior Goetters remained in New York. After Richard died in 1989, Hansi came to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter.

She moved into Westwood Horizons in 1990, where she developed a group of friends who were inseparable. She is the last of the group's original members.

Nevertheless, Goetter stays active. Each day, she exercises, reads the newspaper and attends the various lectures, performances and other programs offered at the retirement home.

"The main thing is, don't sit around" says Goetter, adding that it is a little more difficult now that she uses a walker. "I was always doing something and moving, not sitting."

Recounting her life story in her pleasant one-bedroom suite filled with birthday bouquets and family photographs, Goetter could easily pass for 20 years younger. While the retirement hotel provides her meals and linen service, Goetter manages all her bathing, dressing and grooming independently. She attributes her longevity to genes, remembering a great-grandfather who lived to the age of 93 in a time when such advanced age was extremely rare.

"I don't feel like 104," Goetter told The Journal. "More like between 60 and 70." Her approach, she says, is "I take what comes. I don't think about what I did or didn't do -- it doesn't help anyway."

Goetter insists she's no different than anyone else, just a little older. And as if to prove she's just like any other Jewish grandmother she sighs, "My grandsons don't call me enough."

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