INTERVIEW: Alexander Imich
Holocaust survivor Alexander Imich, the oldest man in the world as of April 24, at home in New York (Photo: Damon Winter / NYT / Redux / eyevine)
In 1903, the teddy bear was born, the first Pulitzer Prize was awarded, Emmeline Pankhurst’s women’s rights party was formed, the first Western film was released and the Wright brothers made their first successful flight. On February 4 of that year — before any of those historic events had taken place — Alexander Imich was born to a Polish Jewish family.
At the miraculous age of 111 years and three months, Mr Imich is now the oldest man in the world, since the previous record holder, Italy’s Arturo Licata, died on April 24, just a week before his 112th birthday.
Mr Imich is gaunt and bearded, with soft, translucent skin and a head of thick white hair that would make a man half his age jealous. I visited him, tagging along with two of his regular companions, on a rainy afternoon in April.
Conversation was tricky, because he is particularly hard of hearing, and he was drifting in and out of sleep following a restless night. But he shared stories about his brothers, he said hello to a gaggle of young girls who turned up unannounced, he licked his lips at the mention of ice cream, and he said with a smile that I was talking nonsense when I told him that his book, Incredible Tales of the Paranormal, was priced in the hundreds on Amazon.
Mr Imich is one of the few supercentenarians known for achievements other than age. He got a PhD in chemistry in 1927 and went on to build a successful career studying — in a scientific way — the supernatural, launching the Anomalous Phenomena Research Centre in his 90s. His obsession with the occult is usually traced back to his interest a Polish medium called Matylda S, but he told me a different story.
“No!” he said, remembering the event that originally sparked his interest. “I had two older brothers who were playing with [levitating] a table, and they didn’t let me in.” It seems that even the oldest man in the world does not forget a century-old sibling rivalry.
Raised by a secular Jewish family in Czestochowa, Poland, Mr Imich lost many family members in the Holocaust, although he (along with his late wife, Wela, who died in 1986) fled Poland when the Nazis invaded in 1939.
He spent two years in a Russian labour camp for refusing to accept Soviet nationality, before moving to Connecticut in 1951. He now lives in an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, where the rooms are filled with an odd collection of items, from his wife’s pastel paintings lining the walls to an old VCR lurking in a jumble of junk in the corner.
Has Mr Imich’s fascination with, and belief in, what exists beyond this life helped him defeat death so long? Perhaps. He puts his longevity down to good genes, an athletic lifestyle and a restricted diet, although his carers say he has quite a penchant for chicken soup, matzah balls and gefilte fish.