Martin Finkelstein stays in the moment

Wheaton resident Martin Finkelstein is 101 and gets joy from exercising and socializing at his synagogue. A Holocaust survivor, he doesn’t usually talk about his experiences. Photo by Dan Schere

Martin Finkelstein didn’t need music as he broke into a jig last week. The 101 year old began to dance around the kitchen of his house in Wheaton.

Asked why he dances, Finkelstein, a man of few words, answered with two:
“Keep moving.”

Finkelstein lives by those words. He wakes at 6:30 a.m., stretches for a half hour and then walks a quarter mile to his synagogue, Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim. He keeps his mind moving by discussing current events with fellow congregants over breakfast

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. “You’ve got to get busy, so I looked for where I could get movement.”

Finkelstein enjoys all types of dance, particularly Israeli dancing. Last Chanukah, he said, he “danced up a storm” at a party hosted by American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad).

“It was like a tango,” he said of the dance.

Many of those closest to Finkelstein have died, including his wife, Helen. But he is always making new friends at synagogue. At the breakfast discussions, he and his friends attempt to “solve world problems,” although they don’t always agree on how to do it.

“We have Democrats, Republicans, non-believers, everybody,” he said.

He didn’t think those problems would survive World War II.

Finkelstein grew up in Poland and served in the country’s army for two years. His unit was captured by German forces during its 1939 invasion of Poland. 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. He worked in the Government Printing Office for 21 years and retired in the mid-1980s. At that point, he decided he had to keep moving, and signed up for aerobics, weight lifting and yoga classes at Montgomery College.

Finkelstein wears a Fitbit to keep track of how many miles he walks. One day last year he clocked four. If he had his way, he would still be driving, but his daughter decided last year that would be too dangerous.

“I told him he couldn’t drive because he hit a sign, and he said, ‘It’s not my fault since the sign was in the way,’” said Finkelstein’s daughter, who asked not to be named in order to not encourage scammers.

That type of blunt humor is what defines Finkelstein, said his friend and fellow congregant Jules Bricker. The two met about 20 years ago when Bricker was going to synagogue to say Kaddish for his father. Bricker said he found Finkelstein to be a wise and witty person.

“He’s not the type of person who would walk up and chew your ear off,” said Bricker. “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.”

Bricker said his friend is 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 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he discovered 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.’”

Finkelstein eventually did fess up, and for his 100th birthday in 2016, Har Tzeon honored him with a lunch. Last year for his 101st, Finkelstein’s friends from the congregation wrote birthday messages on a poster, which included a photo of him in a garden.

Finkelstein said his other joy besides exercise, are his sister Henia and her family that lives in Israel. He and his daughter recently made a trip there after the birth of a grandniece and grandnephew.

His family, he said, is “what keeps me going.”

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