Encino lawyer Jeremy Karpel’s home has an art gallery feel to it, with an eclectically decorated living room spilling out into an elegantly landscaped yard. During one recent weekend, it was the perfect backdrop for a party commemorating his grandparents’ anniversary, filled with the sounds of big band-era greats, as spun by a 9-year-old DJ.
But this was no ordinary anniversary. Eddie and Ruth Elcott of Arleta, both in their 90s, were marking 70 years of marriage.
While laying down their own roots — resulting in a fleet of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including the precocious DJ — the Elcotts contributed to a number of San Fernando Valley Jewish organizations as well, among them their longtime congregation, Adat Ari El in Valley Village.
Still, the visual centerpiece of the Aug. 24 anniversary party was purely personal: a suitcase packed with 1940s wartime correspondence between the couple, then barely in their 20s. The suitcase lid is adorned with a portrait of the then-newlyweds and promotional material for a book that features them, “Project Everlasting: Two Bachelors Discover the Secrets of America’s Greatest Marriages,” written by Mathew Boggs and Jason Miller.
While the Elcotts have been in the public eye of the local Jewish community personally and professionally for decades, one of the most defining moments, according to the couple, took place while promoting the book on CNN. The reporter asked the Elcotts if they ever considered divorce. Not missing a beat, Ruth replied, “Divorce? Seldom … if ever. Murder? Often!”
“It made people around the world laugh, but it also made them think,” Eddie said following their anniversary party, lounging comfortably in the living room of their home of 60-plus years. It is covered wall-to-wall and table-to-table with decades’ worth of framed photos and albums and a sculpture of a young girl dancing that Ruth’s family smuggled out of Germany.
The couple first met back in 1940 at a Jewish United Service Organizations (USO) party in New York City. That’s when a streetwise young soldier from Harlem set his sights on a delicate beauty whom he later learned got herself and her family out of Germany when Hitler came to power, thanks to forged documents, a job opportunity to work on a farm in England and other twists of fate.
“I still remember that when you got out of Germany, you really made a vow, that you would not let Hitler win,” a still-inspired Eddie told his wife. “That’s been basically what our lives since the war have been about. Rather than shy away from the past like other survivors, Ruth made it a point to tell the story to our children and family, as well as high school kids all over Germany, explaining the Holocaust and what she needed to do to survive. Ruth was and is very much a model for how to survive.”
After her father was imprisoned in 1938 and the freedoms of Jews became unbearably restrictive, Ruth decided to take action. When she heard about job openings in England, the 17-year-old obtained a passport and then forged paperwork to indicate she was the required age of 18, she said.
During the train ride to Amsterdam, en route to England, she feared that the German conductor would discover her forgery and send her to her death. Instead, once the train crossed into Holland, Dutch authorities threw the German personnel off the train. Ruth’s job in England involved hard work on a family farm, but she ultimately obtained the means to get her mother, father and sister out of Germany.
No one in the extended family survived the Holocaust, however, according to the couple’s daughter, Diane Karpel of Northridge.
Later, Ruth’s wedding to Eddie was an almost spontaneous affair, consisting of the couple and two witnesses they randomly met shortly before Eddie shipped out. Although wartime romance inspired many Hollywood movies in the early 1940s and the USO gained iconic status through its entertainment and social gathering opportunities, reality put Eddie and Ruth’s relationship to the test.
“We all grew up during that war,” Ruth said. “Soldiers came back and realized the world had changed a great deal. Young women realized that they not only had children to take care of, but husbands as well, especially those injured during the war. We had nothing when we started out, and yet we did it — we got through it. [Eddie] did not come home to a wife happy to see him and a rosy future, but instead home to [a reality that he had] a child and no money.”
War separated the couple during the critical first years of marriage, but they wrote each other every day, chronicling an eventful time in world history and their own lives. Shortly after Eddie’s departure, Ruth learned she was pregnant with their daughter, Diane. Soon after, Eddie’s unit was torpedoed on the way out to the Pacific Theater. Dozens of Ruth’s letters finally got to Eddie a month later, after Diane was born.
“When we wrote to each other every single day, we realized how little we knew about one another ... and that our family structures and upbringings were completely opposite,” Ruth said.
That didn’t stop them from dedicating themselves to the task of maintaining a family once Eddie returned.
“We had to start all over again, and when Eddie was in school, I did everything needed to maintain the household,” Ruth said. “Two and a half years later, our son David was born, and we now had two children to care for on my beautician’s job.”
What each one of them separately went through gave them the backbone to weather the challenges, said their son, Shalom Elcott, president of the Jewish Federation & Family Services of Orange County.
“My parents were both street fighters determined to survive,” he said. “My father grew up in Harlem in a working-class family, while my mother grew up in a well-to-do family in Germany who lost everything and [she] had to get her family out to safety.”
Among the things the family did manage to get out was a crystal bowl that survived the war and several moves, only to be destroyed by the Northridge Earthquake. Its remains have been incorporated — as a symbol of endurance — into 14 statues held by multiple generations of family members. The sculpture was commissioned by Diane Karpel.
Shalom Elcott views his parents’ marriage through the lens of their devotion to building the Jewish community in the San Fernando Valley. His father, a political science educator at West Los Angeles City College, taught confirmation at Adat Ari El, and his mother was active in Sisterhood. She also was a religious school teacher at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and spoke about her experiences in Germany locally and abroad. Shalom Elcott also remembers heeding their encouragement to get involved in different community and philanthropic organizations.
“We had that strong Jewish upbringing in part because it was my mother’s way of continuing the now ongoing joke she played on the Nazis [by] getting herself and her family out. This now includes 18 great-grandchildren who exist because of my parents’ will to survive,” he said. “All of us and many of our children are involved in some form of Jewish education.”