It’s all about “mitzvah,” said Bea Abrams Cohen as she sought to explain one possible secret to her longevity. The meanings of the Hebrew word include an act of human kindness or a good deed. That’s what Cohen, age 102, has spent a lifetime doing.
“Pay back. It works,” said the chatty centenarian, who served her country during World War II and has worked for more than seven decades supporting the U.S. military and philanthropic organizations.
A resident of Westchester, Cohen is believed to be California’s oldest female veteran, according to the California Department of Veterans Affairs. She was recently recognized at a state Capitol celebration during Women’s Military History Week honoring the achievements of women in the armed forces.
“I don’t want anyone to ever forget our veterans,” Cohen said. “They are our heroes.”
“What she has running for gallons in her veins is a love for veterans,” said Jeanne Bonfilio, a spokeswoman for the California VA.
Born Bea Hirshkovici in Bucharest, Romania, on Feb. 3, 1910, Cohen had two older siblings. Her father died when she was 3, and her mother eventually remarried a Romanian widower with nine children. He lived in Fort Worth and sent for her family, who arrived in America in 1920. Cohen took her stepfather’s name and became Bea Abrams. Nine years later, the family moved to Los Angeles.
Cohen vividly remembers Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to enter World War II.
“I was at the Pantages Theatre,” she recalled. “The lights went on, the screen went black, and they said, ‘We’re at war.’ ”
Her first contribution to the war effort involved trapping black widow spiders and sending them to USC, which had a program collecting the strong webs for use as cross-hairs in submarine periscopes.
Cohen enrolled in a class to learn about riveting and later went to work at Douglas Aircraft Co. in Los Angeles, producing munitions and war supplies.
“She became a real-life Rosie the Riveter,” Bonfilio said, referring to the icon that represents the thousands of female factory workers who contributed to the war effort.
Cohen chuckled as she recalled how her diminutive stature — today she is less than 5 feet tall — would require her to stand on a box to do certain tasks. But she loved her work, she said.
“I wanted to pay back for being an American,” Cohen said.
As she recounted how she would carpool to work by riding in the trunk of a car because the vehicle’s cabin was crammed full of people, she started singing the lyrics of “Over There,” a song by American entertainer George M. Cohan, whose life was depicted in the 1942 film “Yankee Doodle Dandy”:
“Over there, over there, send the word, send the word, over there,” she sang. “That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming ... the drums rum-tumming everywhere.”
Cohen enlisted in the U.S. Army and as a private first class was sent to England. Her duties included working in the communications department with top-secret mimeographed documents — and kitchen patrol.
She returned to Los Angeles in 1945, where she met her husband, Ray Cohen, a Marine gunnery sergeant who had been imprisoned on Corregidor Island in the Philippines for more than three years. Less than three months after meeting, the couple married. In 1950 they bought a house in Westchester — where Bea Cohen still resides — and raised two daughters there.
She became involved with a local group for former prisoners of war, as did her husband, who died in 2003. She joined the Jewish War Veterans Auxiliary and became its chairwoman for child welfare. She made lap blankets for veterans and was involved with the United Cerebral Palsy/Spastic Children’s Foundation for 35 years, taking the kids on trips to Disneyland.
While volunteering at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, she met Chief Master Sgt. Jason Young, who served 28 years in the Air Force and had just returned from Vietnam. He helped Cohen secure resources for the children’s trips and build a small park for them.
Cohen’s vivacity was contagious.
“Here I am returning from Vietnam.... I had issues, emotional issues,” said Young, 68, whom Cohen admiringly calls “Chief.” “I kept to myself. When I saw this woman doing what she was doing, caring for others, it kind of got me out of my shell. She helped me to be better able to be around people, to function.”
The two remain fast friends and Young typically escorts Cohen to events.
Cohen became legally blind in 1990, but that didn’t slow her down. She continues to do upholstery, one of her favorite pastimes and a skill she would like to teach fellow veterans.
“Bea has always been a giver,” said 84-year-old World War II veteran Stephen Rosmarin, who has known Cohen for more than six decades. “She’s been doing great work and hasn’t stopped. She gives us all that energy to keep going.”
The centenarian’s dream is to meet First Lady Michelle Obama to thank her “for helping to support our veterans.”
Cohen herself was busy supporting veterans one recent morning at the VA’s Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center in North Hills. She helped Ontic, a Chatsworth aerospace manufacturing company, and the Quilts of Valor Foundation, a nonprofit veterans support organization, present dozens of quilts to former service members.
“I’m really impressed with you,” Marilyn C. Miller, 72, a retired Army specialist, told Cohen. “Might I live as long as you. Do you do anything special?”
“The power of prayer,” Cohen replied, and explained that every time she gets into a fix, God sends her “an angel.”