Martin Finkelstein lived by optimism

The Silver Spring resident has died at 106

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Martin Finkelstein in Poland, before World War II, and in Silver Spring in 2018. Photo by Dan Schere

Last July, when Martin Finkelstein turned 106, his synagogue, Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim threw him a party. It was Shabbat, and about 20 congregants brought a Kiddush lunch to Finkelstein’s home in Silver Spring, walking over in the pouring rain to honor their centenarian friend.

A Holocaust survivor, retired 21-year employee of the Government Printing Office and member of Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim for more than 50 years, Finkelstein died on June 9, a month short of his 107th birthday.

Before the COVID outbreak, Finkelstein was a synagogue regular. According to a 2018 profile in WJW, he woke at 6:30 a.m., began his day with stretches, then walked the quarter mile to Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim for morning prayers. Then breakfast and discussing current events with fellow congregants.

In those discussions, he and his friends attempted to “solve world problems,” he said, although they didn’t always agree on how to do it. “We have Democrats, Republicans, non-believers, everybody,” he said.

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If those discussions helped keep his mind sharp, his love of dancing, particularly Israeli dancing, kept him moving.

Movement, he said, is the key to living in the moment.

“When I retired, I realized that sitting and watching television wouldn’t do,” he said in 2018. “You’ve got to get busy, so I looked for where I could get movement.”

Finkelstein was born on July 10, 1916, in Stopnica, Poland, where he attended cheder, or Hebrew school, and public school. When he was 17, his father told him he had to choose a trade: watchmaker, goldsmith or printer. He became a printer, he said, but the 1930s were a tough time for Jews in Poland.

“When I did learn the trade, [my boss] couldn’t keep me because he couldn’t afford to pay my salary,” Finkelstein said. “And it looked to me that there was no future in Poland because they didn’t like us, either.”

Finkelstein was serving in the Polish army when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and his unit was captured by the German army.

He was put on a train with other prisoners but escaped. He said he was forced to live in the Sosnowiec ghetto and later five labor camps between 1942 and 1945.

Finkelstein’s parents and two of his sisters died during the war. He survived, he said, because he and other prisoners remained optimistic by making up stories that they would soon be liberated.

“I knew it wasn’t true, but I had to believe in it,” he said.

Finkelstein was eventually liberated by the Red Army. He met his future wife, Helen, in Germany before immigrating to the United States, where they were married. Helen died in 2008.

Congregant Jules Bricker said Finkelstein was wise and witty. The two men met 25 years ago when Bricker was going to synagogue to say Kaddish for his father.

“He’s not the type of person who would walk up and chew your ear off,” Bricker said in 2018. “He’s the type of person you could have a conversation with, and you would immediately see he’s very clever and he has a great wit.”

“Martin has an incredible quality of humility,” said Rabbi Steven Suson, of Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim. “He is somebody who is joyful, and he is always smiling, always with a positive attitude, never with a negative remark, never a sour face.”

Inevitably, Finkelstein was asked about the secret to his long life. His answer: movement. “I asked him once, what keeps him so young, and he said it’s all the walking,” Suson said. “This man has incredible energy.”

Noting that he’d never seen Finkelstein in a bad mood, Suson called him “an incredible inspiration, especially for somebody who’s been through so many difficulties and so many horrors, that he’ll reluctantly tell you about but never give you the full details, because he always looks to the positive side of every situation.”

His reticence led to confusion about Finkelstein’s age.

Bricker said his friend was self-conscious about his age and didn’t like being perceived as a 100-year-old man. In 2015, Har Tzeon celebrated what they thought was Finkelstein’s 97th birthday. But later, as Bricker was listening to an oral history that Finkelstein had recorded for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he noticed that something about the chronology was off.

“I find out that he’s been lying about his age all this time,” Bricker said. “He’s 99, not 97. I said, ‘You are going to be 100 years old next year. You need to fess up.’”

And, in fact, the Silver Spring synagogue’s records — and Finkelstein’s own driver’s license — put him at several years younger.

Suson asked Finkelstein about the discrepancy. Finkelstein explained that he was a Holocaust survivor and that when he came to America, he lied about his age.

“And I said, ‘why would you do such a thing?’” said Suson. “And he said it’s because he doesn’t count the years that he was in the concentration [camps]. … He doesn’t count those years as life. And I immediately burst into tears.”

Regardless of the official records, the synagogue threw Finkelstein a centennial lunch in 2016.

Finkelstein is survived by his daughter, Gigi Winters; a granddaughter, Lisa (Andrew); and a great-granddaughter, Haley.

In 2019, Finkelstein, then 103, was asked what surprises him most about the world today?“That we’re still fighting,” he said. “When I was liberated, I think it’s the end, the world will be great. But it’s not true, we’re still fighting all the time.” ■

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