Counting to 103

Martin Finkelstein celebrates his 103rd birthday at Ring House. Photo by Jacqueline Hyman.

Martin Finkelstein celebrated his 103rd birthday Wednesday. He doesn’t use a walking aid. His hearing is great. And because he’s a quiet guy, when he cracks a joke, everybody ends up laughing.

Finkelstein, who lives in Wheaton, has a good group of friends. He has family in the area, and in Israel.

“I’m just amazed at his age and how he looks, how he talks, how he moves, no walker,” says his friend Rose Saady, herself in her 90s. “He is right on, he’s got all his marbles. He’s a lovely, lovely person.”

Saady is one of the friends he sees every Monday at Ring House, a residence of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, in Rockville. They, along with Mary Dubrow, meet for a weekly hour of exercise followed by schmoozing and lunch. This is what Finkelstein says is the secret to his longevity: moving constantly, and time with nice friends.

Dubrow jokes, “He comes here to see the beautiful women.” Naomi Horowitz, a volunteer who organizes the lunches, says, “And he has to be careful because they’re all running after him.” Saady adds, “Yeah, he’s got strong muscles!”

Finkelstein’s mouth opens in a wide smile and he laughs loudly. There’s laughter all around the table.

Later, the Ring House staff bring out slices of carrot cake. Finkelstein’s slice has three candles: blue, white, and pink. They aren’t allowed to light the candles in the building — fire regulations — but that doesn’t stop the group of almost 20 seniors from singing “Happy Birthday” enthusiastically. Saady starts a verse of, “How old are you now?”

Finkelstein stands up, grabs a kippah out of his pocket, and says he would like to recite a brachah. He says the Shehecheyanu, expressing gratitude for reaching this day.

Finkelstein was born 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 says, 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 says. “And it looked to me that there was no future in Poland because they didn’t like us, either.”

A portrait of Finkelstein from before World War II. Photo provided.

He moved to Sosnowiec with his family, where he got a job as a printer. He had to adjust to life in a larger city, and decided eventually to go to pre-state Israel. But while he was waiting for a visa from the British, who ruled the country, Finkelstein was drafted into the Polish army. That was 1937, and Finkelstein served for two years.

He marched with his division from the German border in the west to the Soviet border in the east, a trip of 21 days. Eventually, his division was sent to Germany by train — but Finkelstein says he didn’t complete that journey.

“Since I know what was going on, I did jump the train before going to Germany,” he says. “Jumped the train, and walked from Krakow to Sosnowiec and rejoined my family in Sosnowiec. Then, the ghettos started.”

He was captured in Sosnowiec, and sent to four different concentration camps until he was liberated in 1945 from Waldenburg Camp in Germany.  He says speaking Yiddish helped him understand the orders of the German guards while he “worked all day” in the camps.

What surprises him most about the world today?

“Today, that we’re still fighting,” Finkelstein says. “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.”

He considered staying in Poland after the war, but pogroms in Kielce changed his mind.

“Survivors came back after the war and the Poles killed all the survivors,” he says. “At this time I made up my mind to leave.”

Despite everything he has been through, his friends see a funny, fit man in Finkelstein. Horowitz says everybody in the club loves him; there is something special about him. Finkelstein says positive thinking is a key component of living a healthy life.

“He’s just amazing, he has a quick sense of humor,” says Miriam Burstein, a long-time friend. “You can see how he’s a little upbeat.”

After the war, two of Finkelstein’s sisters moved to Israel, and a third moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. Finkelstein said he followed his future wife, Helen, whom he met in Munich, West Germany, to Philadelphia in 1950. He continued there in the printing industry at the Jewish Publication Society before moving to Maryland in 1962 for a job with the Government Printing Office.

Finkelstein recalls how it felt when Israel became a state: “Liberated again. When you come to Israel you get the special feeling that you are home.”

Finkelstein is quiet, but will answer any questions thrown at him – though this was not always the case. When he immigrated to the United States, he wanted to adjust.

“You like to be normal. You like to be like everybody else,” he says. “In fact, I didn’t tell my daughter for a long time that I was a Holocaust survivor. She was too young.”

Now, of course, she knows the full story. Even though it’s hard to relive, Finkelstein says, “Well, I guess I have to do it in order people will know what happened there.”

Finkelstein now lives with his daughter in Wheaton. There are four generations nearby: she has a daughter, who has a 9-month-old daughter. Helen, his wife, died about ten years ago, he says.

Finkelstein says his Hebrew birthday is next month, the 2nd of Av. When asked he will celebrate that as well, Finkelstein said, “Yes, why not? We have to have happy occasions as much as we can.”

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