Martin Finkelstein once came to his rabbi, Steven Suson, of Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, with a secret: He was about to turn 100.
This was strange. The Silver Spring synagogue’s records — and Finkelstein’s own driver’s license — put him at several years younger.
Suson asked about the discrepancy. Finkelstein explained that he was a Holocaust survivor and 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.”
That was six years ago. His synagogue celebrated him on his 100th birthday, and every year since. Including last weekend, when he turned 106.
While Finkelstein’s actual birthday is July 10, the synagogue chose to celebrate on July 9, Shabbat, and they did so with a Kiddush lunch that congregants brought to Finkelstein’s home in Silver Spring, with 20 or so people walking over in the pouring rain, said Gigi Winters, Finkelstein’s daughter.
“Even though we told them not to come, cause it’s raining, they still came,” she said.
The congregants also brought a large birthday cake and sang happy birthday to Finkelstein in both English and Hebrew.
Finkelstein has been a member of Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim for over 50 years. Originally from Stopnica, Poland, he trained to be a printer before being drafted into the Polish Army in 1937, Winters said. He served until he was captured during World War II and was held in four separate concentration camps.
In 1950, Finkelstein came to Philadelphia in 1950, and then to Maryland in 1962, after he got a job with the Government Printing Office, said Winters.
“Martin has an incredible quality of humility,” said Suson. “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.”
Suson met Finkelstein when he became the congregation’s rabbi in 2012. He found Finkelstein to be “incredibly Judaically knowledgeable,” and noted how he attended morning minyan daily, although lately he attends via Zoom.
“He would walk from his house, which is just a couple of blocks away from the synagogue, every day for our morning service,” said Suson, who estimated that, before the pandemic, Finkelstein walked three to five miles a day.
“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’s 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.”