Bond between world’s oldest Holocaust-surviving siblings forged in brutal time
Sol Fink, from left, Sally Singer, Ruth Zimmer and Anne Novak at the Shaftesbury Park retirement home in Winnipeg. (Travis Golby/CBC – photo credit)
They are believed to be the oldest living Holocaust survivors in the world and live in Winnipeg.
Sisters Ruth Zimmer, 96, Anne Novak, 99, Sally Singer, 101, and brother Sol Fink, 97, grew up in Sanok, south-eastern Poland before World War II changed their family forever.
Today, the surviving siblings share an inseparable bond – and a similarly strong desire to tell their story.
“Life is an honor. I’m not ashamed to tell everyone how old I am because it’s good to live,” Novak said in a recent interview at the Shaftesbury Park retirement home, which the sisters now call home.
Life is something Novak cherishes because it has been taken from so many others, including her brother Eli, who was two years younger than Zimmer, and 80 other members of her extended family.
Submitted by Allan Novak
Days after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the five siblings, along with their parents Shaindel and Zecharia Fink, fled to their grandparents’ home in the nearby village of Tyrawa Wołoska.
When this village came under Russian control in 1940, Polish Jews who had fled to Soviet territory had to declare whether they wanted to become Soviet citizens or return to German-occupied Poland.
According to the Shoah Foundation, a California nonprofit dedicated to recording interviews with Holocaust survivors, the Finks said they preferred to return to Poland.
But instead of sending them back, Russian authorities arrested them – and other Jews who chose to be repatriated – in the middle of the night to be sent to Siberia.
They were taken to a train station. As the family waited in a cattle car, Eli stormed out and ran back to his grandparents’ house.
The rest of the family were used for forced labor in Siberia, where they occasionally received letters from Eli. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, the Soviets released the workers in Siberia and the Finks fled to a village where they lived in a cramped hut and worked on a community farm.
The story goes on
They lived there for the next few years, sharing a pair of boots and enduring hunger and the terrible cold in their hut, which also served as a makeshift synagogue for the village.
Meanwhile, Eli’s letters ceased.
“A Beautiful Boy”
When the war ended in 1945, the family walked 100 kilometers to a train station to return to Poland. There the siblings learned that Eli, her grandparents and other relatives had been deported to concentration camps and executed.
The surviving family members later joined refugees illegally entering US-occupied Germany and arrived at a camp for displaced persons. They were eventually sponsored by a relative to emigrate to Winnipeg in 1948.
“My dad fell and kissed the floor, literally kissed it,” Zimmer recalled in an interview with CBC this week. “He says, ‘Oh, we’re in the best country.'”
When asked how often she still thinks of Eli, she replied solemnly and briefly, “Every time I eat.”
“A beautiful boy,” Fink added, then stretched out his arms as if to reach for something. “I tried to save his life. It breaks my heart.”
The siblings have photos of Eli from his childhood and school days in Poland. One thing they all notice is his expression in almost every picture.
“He has such a sad face … like he feels something is going to happen,” Novak said.
“I can imagine that he missed us and the parents very much,” Zimmer added.
Submitted by Allan Novak
Despite dark times, the siblings are a constant source of light. They laugh and tease each other, joke about their age and sing.
“We can be very playful. Sometimes in the evening … we sing and we reminisce and we think about the old days,” Novak said.
“For me there is nothing more beautiful and wonderful than what is happening. We love being together,” Singer said.
“I know there are families that hate being together, but we just love it. We always find a song.”
Better call Sol
Zimmer believes the relationship is why all four siblings have reached — or passed — the century mark. This is how they survived the cruel days.
The family has grown with children and grandchildren. The sisters all had children at the same time, always lived within walking distance of one another, and at times even ran a café in a Jewish nursing home, according to the Shoah Foundation.
Fink may be the only surviving brother and the only sibling not living in a nursing home, but he’s as close to his sisters as ever. He lives nearby and often comes to visit, bringing a tool or two with him.
“I have to tell you about my brother that he is the best brother. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for us,” Novak said. “If the power goes out or something, we’ll call Sol. Sol is there the moment you call him.”
“That’s right,” Zimmer said, adding that her brother would be there “if the door is broken or the lock is broken.”
“That goes for all of us,” Singer said as Fink beamed next to her.
Their bond may have been forged in times of terror, but it was strengthened by love – and deep gratitude to Canada.
“I am very happy to be in Canada. Canada is a wonderful country,” said Novak, triggering cheering applause from Zimmer.