Zhenia Greszes Turned 99 This Year
Then & NowCommunity

Zhenia Greszes Turned 99 This Year

The near-centenarian celebrated her 99th birthday with her loving, ever-growing family.

Zhenia Greszes and her loving family get together on her 95th birthday // Photo Credit by Beth Intro.
Zhenia Greszes and her loving family get together on her 95th birthday // Photo Credit by Beth Intro.

Zhenia Greszes was born in a small shtetl outside of Kiev, Russia, in 1923. With pogroms in Russia, the family decided to move to Havana, Cuba in 1931. Benjamin Greszes was born in Kobryn, Poland and came to Cuba with his family when he was 14 years old. Zhenia came to Cuba with her family when she was seven years old. She met Benjamin at Moishe Pipik Cuban Jewish delicatessen. He was from an Orthodox home, and she wanted to live that lifestyle.

Zhenia Greszes moved to Atlanta in 1961. She lived for 55 years in the Jewish neighborhood of Congregation Beth Jacob and Toco Hills and has lived at the Renaissance on Peachtree Street in Atlanta since 2017. Zhenia recently celebrated her 99th birthday with family at the Georgia Aquarium and is looking forward to celebrating her 100th next year.

“I consider my life to be exceptional,” she said.  “Ninety-nine is not just a number.”

Miriam Saul is proud to be Zhenia’s daughter and a member of the family of three children with mates, seven grandchildren with mates, and nine great-grandchildren.

Cover from a tribute book that family and friends made for Zhenia Greszes in 2013 on her 90th birthday.

Who says that history doesn’t repeat itself? For Zhenia Greszes, as a child of nine years old, she experienced some of the same atrocities that are being reported today. Zhenia witnessed and experienced pogroms where Russian soldiers would come through their village and destroy everything in sight. They would drag males to take them to fight the war. Her father, Pincus Bicoff, tried to hide but soldiers found him and took him to jail.

Saul said: “My grandmother and her two daughters (my mom and her sister) were left behind to fend for themselves. Somehow my grandfather managed to pay off someone and he escaped. My grandmother did not know his fate. A couple of years later, he wrote to her that he was in ‘the new world’ and would soon send them tickets so they could reunite.

“My mother doesn’t remember much about those early years; just that her mother was super strong and never let them want for anything. Grandmother and daughters arrived in Cuba to start their new life.”

Weber High School student Alex Estrous, who had a project that involved interviewing and spending time with someone elder and interesting, created this book about Zhenia’s life and what she has experienced.

On Coming to America, September 2015 
Greszes recalled: “In 1961, my husband and I and three children came from Cuba to the United States. My children, two girls and a boy, were named Lidia, 15 years old; Miriam, 12; and Mario, 4. My husband and I knew little English, the children knew none, so we waited for January to get our son to kindergarten, and that summer he went to day camp.

For the Fourth of July, they had a celebration at camp, and my surprise was to hear my baby in the front row, singing together with all the American children a Woody Guthrie song, ‘This land is my land, this land is your land, from California to the New York Island.’  I couldn’t stop wiping my tears from my face. Still, whenever I hear that song, it moves me to tears. That little boy grew up to be a lawyer who works for Morgan Stanley and lives in a penthouse overlooking all of Atlanta. Is this a great country or what?”

A Chance Encounter, August 2016
Greszes said: “My late husband, Ben, loved to read. When he was a young man, he was walking with a book in his hand around the ‘Malecon,’ which is a walkway beside a sea wall in Havana.

“From the opposite direction, an older man walked towards him. When the man came closer, Ben recognized the man to be Albert Einstein, wearing his trademark sandals and ripped jacket. The professor was visiting the University of Havana. He stopped Ben to ask about the book. They talked for a while; Ben asked Einstein to sign his book and he did.

“We kept that book until we came to this country, but we could not bring it in. Some lucky person has this book now in Cuba, but it is dedicated to Ben Greszes.”

Miriam Saul is pictured with her mother, Zhenia Greszes.

Another Encounter of a Different Kind, September 2016
Greszes continued: “We were still in Cuba in the beginning of 1961, after the revolution, at the time when Cuba nationalized all private businesses and froze personal money in banks. We were already making plans to leave for the U.S. and knew that we would not be able to bring any of our belongings or our most treasured possessions.

“The money we had was liquid; and while our family was still together, as we were sending our daughters ahead of us to family in Atlanta, we decided that we would live it up and spend as much as we could before we left. As I think about it now…we decided to live ‘la vida loca.’

“To treat ourselves, we decided to take a holiday at the beach resort of Varadero and stay at the glamorous and very expensive International Hotel.

“One morning when we were coming down on the elevator to go to the beach, the elevator door stopped on the next floor and Castro himself came into the elevator dressed in green fatigues, accompanied by bodyguards.

“He started talking to our son who was eating an ice cream cone and was totally oblivious to who he was. Castro continued to try to get a conversation going, but our kid was too busy enjoying his ice cream. We were so shocked…we had actually met the ‘bearded one.’ Little did he know we were about to defect…and that would become one of our claims to fame.”

Miriam and her husband, Danny Saul, express so many things they love about her mother and his mother-in-law.

“She always sticks up for me,” says Danny Saul, “and is the most positive person I know. She never says anything bad about anyone, and she loves my car the best.”

Miriam Saul explained: “She is the wisest person I know and is accepting of any challenges, and loves without condition.”

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