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In Chelsea, centenarians join in life celebrations

CHELSEA — They were born 4,000 miles and a world apart, Joseph Bach to an established Jewish family in the bustling city of Lvov, a cultural seat of Eastern Europe, and Winnifred Monahan to an Irish-Canadian railroad foreman and his wife in the far reaches of northern New Hampshire.

On Thursday, more than a century later, after the long arc of both of their lives had bent toward Chelsea, they shared a birthday party at a skilled nursing center on a bluff overlooking Boston Harbor, Joe Bach at 107 and Winnie (Monahan) Murphy at 106. Sort of.

The banners with their pictures had been strung above the function room, the sparkling wine was on ice, and the table had been set with two cakes, one for Joe and one for Winnie, the seniormost residents at the Leonard Florence Center for Living, and two of the oldest people in the entire state.

And then Winnie, who went through a flapper phase in the '20s and had her nails painted ruby red for the party, started feeling faint. She retired to her room for oxygen, spending a subdued afternoon in bed while the crowd toasted Joe downstairs.

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"Winnie, when you're feeling better, we'll throw you a party next week," said Sharon Loveridge, the activities director.

"Oh, thank you so much," said Winnie, who in truth has a few days to hold onto 105, not turning 106 until next Friday.

Winnifred Murphy will turn 106 on Nov. 13.
Winnifred Murphy will turn 106 on Nov. 13.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Last year, when she was still moving briskly — "I had to tell Winnie to slow down; she would zoom with her walker," Loveridge said — they threw a party just for her, as the oldest resident. Loveridge put candles for "39" on the cake, the age Winnie has given consistently since the 1940s. "Just like Jack Benny," said her daughter, Pat Murphy.

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Then Joe arrived in February, quietly claiming the title of oldest resident — DOB: 11/04/08, as in 1908. Both he and Winnie are Scorpios, so Loveridge decided to throw a combined party.

A trim man in a cardigan and rimless glasses, Joe could easily pass for 90, while his wife, Irene, who is 90 and still drives to visit him every day, could pass for 75, with warm blue eyes and golden hair.

He is one of the world's oldest living Holocaust survivors, and one of the few men in Massachusetts over 105; at the last Census, the state had 97 people that age or older, but only 11 were male.

Joe and Irene both came from heavily Jewish Lvov, then Poland's third-largest city and today part of Ukraine, but they didn't meet until the end of World War II. They found themselves in the same Allied military transport truck heading from Poland to a displaced-persons camp in Austria.

Twins Winnifred, on right, and Regina Ethel in the summer of 1926.
Twins Winnifred, on right, and Regina Ethel in the summer of 1926.Handout

Joe spoke five languages — Polish, Russian, French, Italian, and German — and understood a sixth, Yiddish. He had studied medicine in the early 1930s, first in Paris and then in Italy, but fled the fascists just shy of a degree and returned to Lvov, where he worked for the Hollywood studio MGM.

Life changed suddenly in 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland from the west; the Soviets swept in from the east, initially swallowing Lvov. Because he was an MGM employee, Joe was separated from his family as a capitalist and suspected American spy and sent to a Siberian Gulag, his wife said. It saved his life. When Joe escaped and returned at war's end — four years after the Germans had taken Lvov — everyone in his family was dead.

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Even on that truck, reeling from such unspeakable loss, Irene could tell that Joe was a kind man with a sparkling wit. They married in a displaced-persons camp in Salzburg and waited five years to be accepted into the United States, eventually landing in Everett, where they raised two daughters. Joe worked in the clothing business; Irene was a sales clerk at Filene's.

At his party, he shied from media attention — "Enough with the pictures," he said — but cherished having his family there, Irene by his side, both daughters and their husbands and two of four grandchildren around them.

Loveridge led the room in the birthday song. Halfway through, Joe, who danced at one grandson's wedding at 100 and climbed the stairs at his granddaughter's house at 106, planted his hands on his wheelchair armrests, stood, and waved to the crowd.

"Thank you, thank you," he said, as Loveridge popped open a magnum of Korbel and poured him a glass of the "champagne that I promised you."

"What country?" he asked, eyeing it at first. "French," daughter Anita Block assured him; at 107, he didn't need to know it was from California.

Joe smiled. "French is good," he said, taking a big sip. He skipped the cake but drank in the company, offering a little advice upon request. "So guys, life goes by. Soon you'll look around, you'll be here," he said. "C'est la vie."

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Upstairs, Winnie offered similar advice. "Enjoy your life when you're young," she said. "It's the best time."

Joseph Bach’s grandson, Eric Faymen, 39 from Woburn spoke with him before the party.
Joseph Bach’s grandson, Eric Faymen, 39 from Woburn spoke with him before the party.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.