By Kayla Steinberg
There was no skimping on Erika Robinson’s 98th birthday. Calls poured in from her adoring children, grandchildren and friends as Robinson noshed on a massive breakfast whipped up by her full-time caregiver, Zenaida “Zeny” Belcher. But that wasn’t all.
Robinson’s friend Beth Wolffe, a fellow member at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, organized a surprise social distancing bash for the big day on May 17. And Robinson’s daughter Marlene Schillinger, son-in-law Jim, and grandson Aaron had driven from Petersburg, Va., to Arlington to spend the weekend with her.
Schillinger persuaded her mother to leave the house for a quick drive so Belcher could put the final pre-party touches on the exterior: a sign, banners and balloons. It’s the same red brick house Robinson and her husband bought in 1952, 16 years after she fled Germany during the Holocaust.
Growing up, Robinson lived with her family above her father’s clothing and fabric shop in Hildesheim, Germany. In 1936, recognizing imminent danger, relatives arranged for Robinson and her sister to come to Virginia. Robinson created a new life for herself, raising her three children in her Arlington starter home.
When Schillinger and Robinson returned from their drive to that home at 4 p.m., it was almost unrecognizable. Twenty-five mask-clad visitors brought a mishmash of party gifts — signs, flowers, baked goods and balloons — and two TV cameras from local news stations.
Schillinger was overwhelmed. And Robinson had no idea it was all for her. “It looked like a fair!” Robinson said later by phone.
The party brought a Holocaust survivor, who defied the odds to reach 98, a brief hour of connection, positivity and joy in an escape from what feels to some like an endless social distancing saga.
Robinson sat behind a banner that Belcher had affixed to two trees in front of the door. One by one, her friends approached to wish her happy birthday, give her presents and reconnect after months apart.
“I was flattered,” Robinson said. “I feel like 81!”
She probably does, thanks to years of 60 sit-ups per day and loads of fruits and vegetables. Robinson is healthy: she walks unaided, takes few medications. Every Friday afternoon, she had a standing date with Wolffe at Starbucks. And she cooked, cleaned and regularly attended Shabbat services until December.
That’s when she came down with what was thought to be the flu, but was later diagnosed as heart failure. After a stint at a hospital, she moved to a rehabilitation center, where she got shingles.
Her family worried she’d never recover.
Maybe it was a miracle — or all those sit-ups she’d done into her nineties — but Robinson gradually recuperated, inching toward 98. “I would love to know why she came back so strong,” said Schillinger. After Robinson left rehab, Schillinger hired Belcher to care for her and was able to visit in person. Then quarantine hit, and all they could do was FaceTime.
It was hard for the whole family, including grandson Aaron Schillinger who missed his grandmother’s long hugs. “We call it an Oma hug,” he said, using the German word for grandmother. “She squeezes everything out of you, and it lasts for a really long time. You actually have to pry yourself out of her arms.”
Robinson is the kind of person who is determined to create the best possible life for herself. As a newlywed, she lived a double life, working as a secretary by day and earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology by night. Three children later, Robinson continued to work and strengthen her roots in Arlington.
“We had at one point tried to get Oma to move down further south toward Richmond so she could be closer, but she never wanted to leave Arlington,” Aaron Schillinger said. “That’s her living out her life the way she wanted to.”
While Robinson has filled her decades in the United States with vibrant connections, she has never forgotten her past. Robinson gives talks about the Holocaust, fearing that its memory will die with survivors. “When we are gone, the history may be forgotten,” she said.
After the party, Robinson received a phone call from an international number. It was the daughter of Robinson’s friend from Hildesheim, calling to say happy birthday. The two chatted in German as Marlene Schillinger marveled at her mother’s popularity.
“She is loved by so many,” said Schillinger. “It’s really amazing.”
And Robinson continues to create new memories, like diving into the word search Belcher gave her for her birthday. “She’s gonna burn through this word search,” said Aaron Schillinger. “We’re gonna have to get a box of them.”
The next day, Robinson took an extra long nap in her old Arlington home, taking a pause from friends’ calls, Belcher’s homemade food and her word search for a moment of well-deserved rest.