by Vivian Henoch
What a gift for life . . . And what a joy it was to visit Millie in the afterglow of her 98th birthday on January 30. “Come in, come in,” she bid us, welcoming our interview as though we were old friends dropping in for coffee and chitchat.
Amidst the flower bouquets and balloons giving her cozy apartment the appearance of the backstage dressing room of the star on opening night, we find Millie, elegantly dressed and seated comfortably in a sunlit chair in the living room. “I’m still on a high from yesterday,” she tells us. “Ten grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren, and yesterday, on my birthday, I heard from every one of them. Cards, calls, tributes! My family hosted a luncheon in my honor. There were three birthday cakes, can you imagine? One person brought in a seven-layer cake – a whole loaf decorated with Happy Birthday on top, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Living well, going strong, in remarkably good health and with her memory sharp, Millie has every reason to celebrate. “I’ve had a lot of naches (the Yiddish word for pride and joy) in my life,” she says. “I have had a wonderful family life, married for 76 years to Aaron of blessed memory. Aaron lived to nearly 105 and he always used to say, ‘I’ve lived to see all my dreams come true.’ And now I say that too. I’ve lived to see all that my children have accomplished and, beyond that, I now see the next generation coming up, all just as hard-working and accomplished as their fathers and mothers.”
Millie and Aaron’s story began in 1939 in the retail hub of Michigan Avenue in Detroit. The daughter of Rose and David Schuff, Millie worked in her family millinery shop. She was 17 when she met Aaron, the enterprising young furniture salesman, at a store opening event. “He was the furniture store; I was the hat store girl next door. Aaron thought I was the most gorgeous thing walking and started sending me flowers,” said Millie with a twinkle in her eye. “We married in June 1940, five years to the day after he came to the U.S. Aaron believed in hard work, spoke eight languages and understood how to take care of people. Out of the 18 furniture stores on our block, my husband was the top salesman. All the stores were after him. Six months after we got married, he went into business on his own, started Senate Furniture and had a tremendous following. People would wait an hour to see him.”
Born in Kovno, Lithuania, and well educated there, Aaron was the son of a rabbi, a political activist who was imprisoned in Siberia for the first two years of Aaron’s life. At the encouragement of his mother, Aaron came to America in 1935 where he joined his older sister in Detroit.
“Though Aaron lost his parents, four siblings and other members of his family in the Holocaust, he was able to close that chapter in his life. Aaron never lost his faith, his gratitude for his family and his joy for living,” Millie observed. “Together we were active at Congregation Adat Shalom for nearly 77 years. My husband davened beautifully; he sang and could have been a cantor. He loved to dance . . . and he loved to play golf. He was known at Knollwood Country Club to be oldest golfer to ever have a hole in one.”
Beyond their record-holding support of Federation – in Detroit as well as in Florida – the Bergs were active volunteers in the community and honored for their donations and work on behalf of Israel Bonds, the Jewish National Fund and Histadrut, (the Federation of Jewish Labor) in Israel. “We were both very big Zionists,” said Millie. “In fact, I have more family living in Israel than here. My grandfather was a musician in the orchestra of the Tsar (Nicholas II). During the Russian Revolution of 1905, he fled to Israel and settled in Petah Tikva (the “Door of Hope”). I still have family in that community.
Here’s to life, here’s to longevity. . .
Imagine living nearly a century, long enough to see your children – through the duration of distinguished careers to their retirement – through the years to see grandchildren in the prime of life, raising the next generation. Millie and Aaron raised their four children – Brenda, Richard, Robert and Charles – in Huntington Woods; all four graduated from Michigan schools that did them proud. And all carried the Berg tradition of hard work, scholarship and enterprise. As the family moved on, Millie and Aaron made their home in West Bloomfield in Wabeek and also maintained a residence in Pompano Beach, Florida.
These days, in conversation with Millie, it takes no time for her to launch into a Who’s Who in a family she likes to call her “League of Nations” – her generations of brothers and sisters, children and in-laws, grandchildren, and great grandchildren – a family of attorneys, doctors, social workers, professors, art appraisers, businessmen and entrepreneurs across the country.
The list of the Berg family is long, but so is Millie’s memory. Those who know the Berg family from way-back-when may remember:
- Millie’s “kid” sister, Annette Gurian, a social worker and one of the founders of JARC, now living in Roanoke, Virginia.
- Brenda Friedman (n. Berg), a long-time Detroiter, active with Federation, now retired and living in downtown Chicago, Illinois.
- Richard (Rick) Berg, a law professor at Santa Clara University, now retired and living in Santa Cruz, California.
- Robert A. Berg, Professor of Anesthesiology, Critical Care Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and Division Chief of Critical Care Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
- Charles (Chuck) Berg, second generation of Senate Furniture & Mattress, owner of La-Z-Boy in Santa Cruz, now retired.
- Grandchildren and their children: Ranging in ages from 1 year old to 51, they are too numerous to name.
“You’re never too old (or too young) to give.”
“I’ve lived long enough to see three generations in a beautiful mix of people I love,” says Millie. “There are a lot of intermarriages in our family – but the kids know they are Jewish, and we celebrate the holidays. And what I see Federation doing today is wonderful in bringing more young people and families together in our community. If you ask me, that’s why it’s so important and gratifying for me to be a lifetime donor. And I would say to others that you’re never too old (or too young!) to give. You don’t have to give a lot of money, but you’ve got to give something, because a little from everybody every year adds up to lifelong donations.”
We visited Millie representing Federation, but in true Jewish matriarch fashion, she invited us to stay for lunch served downstairs – a tempting offer we had to decline. “Well, at least take a slice of cake,” she insisted . . .
And sure enough, without further question, we take the cake.