Community Connections

Four Siblings—Aged 95, 97, 99, and 100—Record “Last Chance Testimony” Stories of Survival

Wed, 04/13/2022 - 8:00am
Photo courtesy The Winnipeg Free Press
Photo courtesy The Winnipeg Free Press

Sally (Fink) Singer still cries over the spilled milk. Yes, it happened more than 80 years ago. And at the age of 100, Sally knows that her siblings – Anne (99), Sol (97), and Ruth (95), who to this day remain inseparable – have long since forgiven her. But the pangs of guilt and hunger linger.

The spill happened in 1940 in a Siberian forced labor camp, where the family had been sent after they had fled Nazi-occupied Poland. Sally’s mother had traded a blouse for a pot of milk in a nearby village. The family had decided that rather than simply drink the milk, they would savor it slowly, letting it separate, then spreading the cream on brown bread or potatoes and sipping the sour milk or using it to enrich their watery soup.

But in the early morning darkness, as Sally groped for a pair of shoes under the bunkbed in the cramped room shared by the family of six, she knocked the pot over.

“I felt so guilty. Nobody told me anything, but I saw it in their faces. It was like I robbed my family of something so precious,” she said in an interview in 1988 with the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. Sally’s testimony is contained in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

Sally’s siblings are now in the process of adding memories of their own to the Visual History Archive through the Last Chance Testimony Collection, USC Shoah Foundation’s race-against-time initiative, launched in 2019, to preserve the memories of the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust

Sally Singer, Anne Novak, Sol Fink, and Ruth Zimmer, all of whom live in Winnipeg, Canada, are likely the oldest living set of Holocaust survivor siblings anywhere in the world. They are certainly the oldest siblings recording their testimonies with USC Shoah Foundation.

“Having four siblings talk about their experience gives us an incredible chance to hear a story from different perspectives,” said Marilyn Sinclair, USC Shoah Foundation Next Generation Council Co-Chair, who is spearheading USC Shoah Foundation’s Last Chance Canada effort along with Liberation75, the organization she founded. “We feel like we have found a treasure, that they are still sharp and eager to share their stories. Even during COVID, our team raced to Winnipeg to capture the stories as soon as we could.”

Since October 2021, Liberation75 has recorded more than 50 new testimonies and identified more than 750 others in existing Canadian collections. The recordings are being digitized, indexed, and archived and will be integrated into USC Shoah Foundation’s 55,000-strong Visual History Archive. Sinclair said the effort will continue as long as there are survivors who want to tell their stories.

After recording Last Chance Testimony interviews remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, USC Shoah Foundation is now increasing the number of in-person interviews.

In December 2021 Sol and Ruth recorded testimonies that are now being indexed and prepared for the Visual History Archive. Anne recorded hers last month.

Carol Sevitt, Anne’s daughter and a writing instructor, jumped at the chance to register her family for Last Chance Testimony interviews. She had previously written and recorded a short document telling her mother's story.

"For the children, for the grandchildren, this adds more volume to the voices and to these stories,” Carol said.

The memories of the cold and hunger of Siberia, and the pain of losing their youngest brother, are never far off, Sally said during a recent Zoom interview. The three sisters spoke from a lounge in the Winnipeg residential facility where they live, and Sol, his wife and his daughter joined the Zoom call from his Winnipeg home.

“It is something you don’t forget. If you wake me up in the middle of the night, I will tell you the same story,” Sally said.

Escape and Then Arrest

The four siblings grew up in the town of  Sanok in southeastern Poland with a younger brother, Eli, and their parents, Shaindel and Zecharia Fink, an Orthodox butcher. Within days of the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the family fled to their grandparents’ home in Tyrawa Wołoska, 21 kilometers away. By the end of September, Tyrawa, on the other side of the San River, was under Russian control, and Sanok was held by the Nazis.

In 1940, authorities demanded that Polish Jews who had fled to Soviet territory declare whether they wanted to become citizens of the Soviet Union or return to German-occupied Poland. Zecharia, like most Jewish refugees in Soviet territory, stated that his family would prefer to go back to Poland.

But instead of sending Jews who had opted for repatriation back to Poland, Russian authorities arrested them. Shaindel, Zecharia and their five children, aged 9 to 17, were arrested in the middle of the night in June 1940 and taken to the train station. As the family waited in a cattle car, a friend spirited Eli, the youngest son, back to his grandparents’ house.

Shaindel, Zecharia and their four oldest children were forcibly transported east on the crowded train. At stations along the way they were given water and small amounts of soup or bread. Passengers relieved themselves through a hole in the carriage floor.

“We kept asking, what did we do? What is our crime? Where are you taking us?” Sally said in her 1988 testimony.

After a month of traveling, the family of six was discharged in the area of Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia, then transported by truck a few hours further into the deep forest. At the end of their long journey they were given a tiny room in a flimsy barrack. It contained straw-covered planks for bunk beds, two burners, and a small table.

The Soviets forced Sol and his father to work in the forest chopping trees. Anne and Sally were assigned to strip the trees of bark and small limbs. Ruth, then 11, stayed at home with her mother. In the winter the family struggled to stave off frostbite; in the summer, they were eaten alive by mosquitoes. The hunger was debilitating and constant.

The family took solace in the occasional letters they received from young Eli and other relatives. And the siblings found time to gather and sing in the evenings with other young people. Sally wrote poetry and prose, but burned her journals for fear they would be discovered by Soviet authorities.

Safety in Siberia

In June 1941, Hitler broke a pact with Joseph Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Russia joined the Allies, and as a result released its Jewish prisoners. While many refugees elected to re-locate to far off Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, the Fink family moved to the village of Suzun, just 12 kilometers from the camp.

They were given a cramped cottage with a small garden, and while food was still scarce, things were better. They all worked: Anne in a kindergarten, Sally and Ruth sewing, and Sol continued to work in the forest until, at age 18, he was conscripted into the Red Army. He was released after a few months. For the five years the family lived in Suzun, the Fink women were forced to work on the kolkhoz (communal farm) every summer.

The Fink cottage served as the village synagogue. A young man named Morris Singer regularly attended to say the Kaddish memorial prayer for his mother, and he and Sally struck up a romance.

But the family still had to endure intolerable cold – they had one pair of galoshes between them – and never had enough food. And letters from Eli no longer arrived.

In 1945 the war ended, and in 1946 Russia and Poland came to an agreement to return refugees to their homelands. Over the course of three days, the Fink family walked 100 kilometers alongside a wagon packed with their belongings to a train station. Four weeks later they arrived in Wrocław (formerly Breslau), Poland.

While living in the far reaches of Siberia, the family had heard only scant reports of German atrocities, mostly from returning Soviet soldiers. Back in Poland they learned of concentration camps, mass executions, and death marches. Anne returned to Sanok , where former neighbors gave her devastating news: Eli, her grandparents and almost her entire extended family had been deported to concentration camps. Later, Anne and her siblings would learn that Eli, their grandparents and around 80 extended family members had been murdered in the Holocaust.

“As bad as Siberia was, we were in a very safe place,” Anne said in the recent interview. “Siberia was the only place that was not touched by war.”

Three Maidlech and Mr. Fix-It

After arriving in Poland, the family joined a stream of refugees crossing illegally into U.S-occupied Germany and arrived at a Displaced Persons camp in Neu Ulm. There, Sally and Morris Singer were married, and ten days later Anne married Oscar Novak, whom she had met in Wrocław. Anne wore the same American hand-me-down dress that Sally (and many other DP camp brides) had worn, and their mother joked that Anne had had to get married because there were still cookies left over from Sally’s wedding.

By the time a relative sponsored the family to immigrate to Canada in 1948, Anne and Sally had both had daughters. The entire Fink family relocated to Winnipeg, where each sibling raised families and found work. Sol and Morris became partners in a small grocery store, and Zecharia also owned a small shop.

Zecharia died in 1959 and Shaindel died in 1960.

The three Fink sisters – Sol calls them “the maidlech,” Yiddish for girls – were and have remained extremely close. They had children at the same time, always lived within walking distance of one another, and, for a time, ran a café in a Jewish nursing home. They vacationed together, retired to three adjacent condos in a shared hallway, and then a few years ago moved into the same Winnipeg assisted living facility. Today they still regularly get together with Sol and his wife, who live nearby, and with their children and grandchildren.

“These four people have not left each other’s sides for 90-some odd years,” said Zachary Zimmer, Ruth’s son, a professor of gerontology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I don’t doubt that the network they have is probably somewhat responsible for their longevity.”

That, and their determination to wring laughter and joy out of every moment, even during the trauma of the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

“We make ourselves busy,” Ruth said, listing the activities the sisters do together. “I have no time for oy vey.”

Learn more about supporting or recording testimony through our Last Chance Testimony Collection Initiative.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.