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

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.
May 5, 2022
Anne, Sally, Sol, and Ruth in 2021. The siblings have stayed close all their lives.

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 bunk bed 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 a 1988 interview. 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. 

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. “We feel like we have found a treasure, that they are still sharp and eager to share their stories.”

Since October 2021, more than 50 new testimonies have been recorded and more than 750 others in existing Canadian collections have been identified. The recordings 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.

In December 2021 Sol and Ruth recorded testimonies; 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. “For the children, for the grandchildren, this adds more volume to the voices and to these stories,” Carol 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.

The Fink siblings, (top row) Anne, Sol, Sally, (bottom row) Ruth and Eli, in 1932. They grew up with a large, tight-knit family in Sanok, Poland.

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 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. The family was arrested in the middle of the night in June 1940 and taken to the train station. As they 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. “We kept asking, what did we do? What is our crime? Where are you taking us?” Sally said in 1988.

After a month of traveling, the family of six was discharged in the area of Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia, then transported by truck into the deep forest. 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.

Safety in Siberia

In June 1941, Hitler broke his pact with Joseph Stalin and invaded the USSR. Russia joined the Allies, and as a result released its Jewish prisoners. 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. 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. In 1945 the war ended, and in 1946 Russia and Poland came to an agreement to return refugees to their homelands. 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.

The four older siblings and their parents survived in Siberia. Eli and some 80 family members were killed in the Holocaust. In a displaced person camp in Neu Ulm, Germany, in 1948: (top row) Oscar and Anne Novak, Sally and Morris Singer, (bottom row), Sol Fink, Shaindel Fink, Ruth Zimmer, Zecharia Fink.

The three Fink sisters were and have remained extremely close. 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. “We make ourselves busy,” Ruth said, listing the activities the sisters do together. “I have no time for oy vey.”

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, former senior writer for The Jewish Journal, is a writer and content creator for USC Shoah Foundation. She is working on a book on her grandparents’ Holocaust experience.

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