For Bea Abrams Cohen, life was all about “mitzvah,” the Jewish tradition of doing a good deed.
Believed to be California’s oldest female veteran, Cohen served her country during World War II, spent more than 70 years supporting U.S. military organizations and charities and clocked thousands of hours volunteering for causes that helped bring comfort and joy to former service personnel.
“Pay back. It works.” That was Cohen’s life philosophy.
Cohen died May 31 of congestive heart failure at an assisted living facility in Los Angeles, according to her daughter Janiece Cohen. She was 105 years old.
“She wasn’t ready,” Janiece, 68, said of her mother. “She always said there was still more to do. Mother just always felt that she wanted to help other people. It made her feel good.”
Cohen was a tireless champion of veterans who plunged herself into causes to make sure they were well taken of and not forgotten, said Lindsey Sin, deputy director for Women Veterans Affairs at the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
“She was an invaluable point of light for women veterans, and men,” Sin said. “She continued to give back over and over again.”
A longtime resident of Los Angeles’ Westchester neighborhood, Cohen was born Bea Hirshkovici in Bucharest, Romania, on Feb. 3, 1910. She had two older siblings. Her father died when she was 3, and her mother eventually married a Romanian widower and father of nine children who lived in Fort Worth. He sent for the Hirshkovicis, who arrived in America in 1920. Cohen took her stepfather’s name and became Bea Abrams. In 1929, the family moved to Los Angeles.
Cohen, deeply grateful that America welcomed her family, wanted to find a way to show her gratitude. So she joined the U.S. war effort.
“I wanted to pay back for being an American,” Cohen told The Times in a 2012 interview.
Her initial role involved trapping black widow spiders and sending them to USC, which collected the strong webs for use as crosshairs in submarine periscopes. She later studied riveting, which led to work at Douglas Aircraft Co. in Los Angeles, producing munitions and war supplies.
After enlisting in the U.S. Army, the private 1st class was sent to England, where her duties included working in the communications department with top-secret mimeographed documents — and kitchen patrol.
The fact that Cohen was originally from Romania and chose to join the U.S. military underscored the depth of her patriotism, Sin said.
In 1945 she returned to Los Angeles, where she met and married Ray Cohen, a Marine gunnery sergeant and former prisoner of war in China and Japan.
Cohen’s daughter Janiece acknowledged that her mother’s home life was not always easy. Her husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was an introvert compared to the outgoing Cohen. She threw herself into activities outside the home, particularly volunteerism.
Cohen got involved with a local support group for former prisoners, including her husband, who died in 2003. She made lap blankets and wheelchair bags for veterans and collected thousands of pairs of donated socks for them. She became chairwoman for child welfare for the Jewish War Veterans Auxiliary and worked for 35 years with the United Cerebral Palsy/Spastic Children’s Foundation, taking the kids on trips to Disneyland.
Chief Master Sgt. Jason Young, a Vietnam veteran who served 28 years in the Air Force, helped Cohen secure resources for the children’s trips. The pair met in 1970 while Cohen was volunteering at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, and they became fast friends.
The strapping African American would escort the diminutive Cohen, who stood less than 5 feet tall, to speaking engagements, meetings and other functions, which she continued to attend even after being diagnosed as legally blind in 1990.
“She set the bar very high in terms of her personal contributions to assisting others, especially veterans,” said Young, 71. “She was obsessed with the need, the status and the predicament of veterans.”
Cohen also had a personal effect on Young, who said he was socially aloof after returning from Vietnam.
“Just being around her was motivational for me, dealing with some of the issues I had,” Young said.
Cohen’s dream was to meet First Lady Michelle Obama to thank her “for helping to support our veterans.” Former California Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, a champion of veterans’ and seniors’ issues, said she helped that dream come true — twice.
“She was unforgettable,” Butler said of Cohen, noting that at one meeting — an event honoring veterans —Cohen managed to receive three hugs from the first lady.
“She was so grateful to be in the U.S., to have lived her life in this country,” Butler said.
Besides Janiece, Cohen is survived by another daughter, Susan Cohen, 67.