How to age well: tips from 98-year-old Nazi concentration camp survivor


It’s never too late to start exercising, says Andrei Iwanowitsch, who was in his 80s before becoming physically active – he feels better now than 15 years ago

Andrei Iwanowitsch is a 98-year-old with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye. On holiday from his home in Belarus, he’s spent the last month visiting friends in Hong Kong and exploring the city, but he’s keeping up his almost daily exercise regime – which includes doing planks.

This nonagenarian has much to teach us about ageing well. Exercise, diet and staying mentally engaged are, unsurprisingly, central to his good health.

But even more important, he says, is compassion.

“Mercy, mutual understanding and friendship – everything that is good on an emotional basis, this is holy,” Iwanowitsch says.

Born 1926 in northern Ukraine in the early days of the Soviet Union, he lost his mother when he was six. His father was killed in 1941 in the first year of war after the German invasion.

While searching for food for his siblings, he was captured by German soldiers and sent to Leipzig, Germany, as a forced labourer.

In February 1944, he was accused of belonging to a resistance group and detained in prison before being sent to the Nazi’s Buchenwald concentration camp. He was sent on a death march on April 14, 1945, during which he was liberated by the US Army.

A documentary about his life, Ja, Andrei Iwanowitsch, was released in 2020. The film’s director, Hannes Farlock, who is now delegate and chief representative at German Industry and Commerce Hong Kong, invited him to the city.

“Andrei’s energy level is higher than most of the middle-aged people I know,” Farlock says. “He has the legs of a 40-year-old sportsman.”

One of the last survivors of the Buchenwald camp, Iwanowitsch serves as a role model for all of us as we age, and is a hopeful reminder that it’s never too late to make positive changes.

“I started being active very late in life – I was in my early 80s,” Iwanowitsch says. “That’s why, 15 years ago, I felt much worse than I do today. It’s never too late to start exercising.”

After his release from Buchenwald, he was drafted into the Soviet army for six years. When he completed his service he stayed on in Belarus, working during the day and going to evening classes to get a degree in engineering.

There, he met and married the love of his life, Claudia, and they raised two sons.

Iwanowitsch never had the luxury of thinking about healthy food options. During his childhood, on the collective farm and later at Buchenwald and in the army, food was scarce, and he often went hungry. During his 35 years as an engineer, there wasn’t time to think about food.

“I worked long hours. I just tried to get something to eat. My wife cooked what we could get in the market. We ate what was available,” he says.

Claudia died in the 1980s, and in 2004, with Iwanowitsch in his late 70s, his elder son died, his other son moved away, and his health began to deteriorate.

“I had problems with my heart, kidneys and other organs. Different doctors gave me different medications, so in the end I was taking seven different medications,” he says.

The following year, the German government invited him to the Buchenwald Commemoration Day. Having spent his whole life not talking about Buchenwald, he was finally able to speak openly about what had happened there, and begin to process the trauma.

Not wanting to keep taking seven prescribed pills a day, Iwanowitsch took matters into his own hands. With the same determination he applied to his engineering studies, he read medical books and journals to better understand the effect the medication had on his body. He reduced his medication from seven pills a day to two.

He subscribes to two newspapers and four journals to keep in touch with current issues.

“It’s very important to stay ahead of current topics and to know both sides of the story and find a good middle way in terms of understanding the things that surround you in the world. When I read about new developments in health, I try to experiment on myself,” he says.

One such “experiment” was with curcumin, a naturally occurring compound found in the roots of the turmeric plant that give them their bright yellow colour. Curcumin is a carotenoid, an antioxidant that lowers inflammation in the body. Iwanowitsch has taken it daily for the last eight years – he stirs a spoonful into his coffee – and believes he is benefiting from it.His diet is simple. He begins most days with oatmeal and an egg. He tries to avoid meat, has fish a couple of times a week, eats lots of fruit and vegetables, and has about three nuts a day. At lunch he enjoys a 40ml shot of cognac, to aid digestion.

“It’s important to eat different things, different vegetables. I eat much less than I was eating 15 years ago, and I never eat until I’m completely full. I just eat until I’m 80 per cent full,” he says.

He grows most of his fruit and vegetables himself in his summer house, which is located just outside Belarus’ capital, Minsk, where he lives. He takes the train from Minsk and walks the 3km (1.9 miles) from the station to get to the house.

From April to November, he plants and harvests his crop: beetroots, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cabbages, herbs, apples, pears and cherries. Some of his harvest he eats fresh, the rest he either shock freezes or marinates to enjoy during the winter months.

During the winter, he makes occasional visits to the summer house to clear away the snow and heat up the stove to maintain the house. He credits this very active lifestyle for his good health.

“Movement is life – your feet should be walking, your hands should be doing something and your head should be thinking. Everything should move, be in flow,” he says.

That movement includes sex, if possible. Up until his girlfriend died a few years ago, he was having sex twice a month.

“The organism is freeing itself from old things and rejuvenating itself. If you don’t have sex, this is stuck in itself and can have a bad influence on the body. If you don’t have sex for a long time, it dies out in yourself,” he says.

Ageing well is about being active in both body and mind, he says.

“It’s important to find something to occupy yourself with and do something. Don’t sit like a lazy piece of something on the sofa. Always be in touch with the things that surround you. If there’s a possibility, travel,” he says.

His trip to Hong Kong – the first time he has travelled outside Europe – has opened his eyes to the world, he says, and he’s sure the experience will help him live longer.

He will leave Hong Kong on April 10 and travel to Germany with Farlock for the Buchenwald Commemoration Day, which he has attended every year since 2005.

“Today I’m alive, but if I die tomorrow, that’s also OK,” he says. “I’m not worrying. I live in the day of today.”

Original Link: SCMP

About author

Kate Whitehead

Kate Whitehead is a Hongkonger and has made the city her home since she was eight. She got her first degree (BA English Lit) from Warwick University and her postgrad (MA English Lit) from Sussex University. She was on staff at the Hong Kong Standard and South China Morning Post and was the editor of Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, Discovery.