Elizabeth Bergstein of Popham Road has lived in the United States for nearly 45 years and Scarsdale for 25.
The 98-year-old, born in Vienna, Austria, came to the U.S. when she was 19.
“My mother and I, because we were Jewish, we had to leave,” she said. “We went to England first and then came here.”
She escaped the Holocaust in which more than 6 million European Jews were killed.
Bergstein emigrated with a strong educational background — she spoke perfect English, which meant she had no language barrier to overcome, and she spoke German and French as well.
“Just before leaving Vienna, I had graduated from one of the best high schools in the country,” she said. “I had a very good education.”
But, when Bergstein came to the United States, it was the very end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, which made it difficult to find a job.
“My first job paid $18 a week,” she said. “That’s the salary people made. Things were tough.”
Bergstein went into the real estate industry, a career that spanned her entire adult life, and established her own real estate company in Manhattan called ETB Realty.
She originally started out as an intern, and wasn’t paid for almost a year. But Bergstein was a fast learner and landed a job as a secretary, which turned into an opportunity as a controller. A real estate controller is responsible for all accounting related activities within a company.
By the time Bergstein turned 56, she started her own real estate management company. Even when she retired, she continued to manage certain buildings in Manhattan.
“My clients didn’t want me to retire,” she said. “I gave them two years’ notice. I felt 86 was time, I didn’t want anyone to say I was getting too old.”
Rising through the ranks in the business industry during the same era women were advancing in the work world gave Bergstein room to grow.
“I realized a woman has to be twice as good as a man,” she said. “That’s in any field whatsoever. And I was very good. Because otherwise, why would my clients give me these buildings to manage? I loved it. I was very good at it.”
About a year after coming to the United States, Bergstein looked into getting her real estate broker’s license, which was a difficult license to obtain.
“I didn’t have any money to take the college course,” she said. “So I got myself the books to study for the real estate brokers license, and I was told the exam is a very difficult one, which it is.”
Bergstein said she remembered the exam, which typically lasts four hours, took her just two hours to complete.
“I got up to leave and I remember every head was turning,” she said. “They thought ‘Oh, she’s giving up after two hours.’”
In fact, she had completed the test successfully.
Bergstein was one of the first women in the real estate management field to establish her own business.
“Women were always in the sales division, but very few with management,” she said. “I had a small office and I did all the work myself for the first few years.”
That included all the paperwork and dealing with the money. Bergstein said the business had the potential to grow into a larger company, but she said she just wanted to do a good job for her clients and kept a secretary and bookkeeper on staff.
Since her retirement, Bergstein said she keeps busy by doing a lot of reading. She reads novels, but also combs through a number of newspapers to keep up to date with the latest political news.
Bergstein also gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “no excuses.”
The 98-year-old works out three times every week.
Her husband died almost 19 years ago, her son moved to Florida and she has lived by herself since then.
“I decided I needed to do something for myself and I was going to see if exercise would help,” Bergstein said. “I never exercised when I was younger, I hated it.”
She came across an advertisement for a gym and, when she called, she asked if they had anyone who could come to the house.
That’s how she met her trainer, John Cleary, who works with Greenwich, Connecticut-based All Out Fit.
The two met almost 20 years ago and have been close friends ever since.
Bergstein said their bond has helped her in many ways.
“When I met him, he had just lost his mother and I had just lost my husband, so we had something in common,” she said. “Over the years, he has become like a surrogate son.”
Bergstein spends 20 minutes on the bike and works with weights. Cleary helps Bergstein stretch out her knees properly, and Bergstein said it’s rare to have a trainer care so much for seniors.
“He’s very caring and he likes older people,” she said. “Which is very rare. Most people don’t want to be involved… But he really cares.”
Bergstein said she feels the workouts have been good for her overall well-being.
“I think the key is to keep [yourself] activated and motivated,” she said. “My doctors are very pleased that I’m doing it. Given my age, I’m very healthy.”
As Bergstein approaches 99 this fall, she offered some words of advice.
“One of the most important factors is to remain active mentally and to have a positive attitude,” she said. “Take it one day at a time.”