Four Winnipeg siblings who survived the Holocaust together in a slave labour camp in Siberia are recording their stories for the future

The Fink siblings, from left: Anne, Sally, Sol and Ruth. (Photo supplied by the family)

They may well be the oldest living Holocaust survivor siblings—and they live in Canada.

The four Fink siblings—Sally Singer, 100, Anne Novak, 99, Sol Fink, 97 and Ruth Zimmer, 95—live in Winnipeg, where they are in the process of having their stories added to the Last Chance Testimony Collection, part of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

The race-against-time initiative was launched in 2019 to preserve the memories of the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust.

Sally’s story was already in the Foundation’s archive, from a 1988 interview for Winnipeg’s Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

In December, last year, Sol and Ruth recorded their stories. Anne recorded hers in March. 

The four grew up in Poland, near the Carpathian Mountains, with their younger brother, Eli, and their parents Shaindel and Zecharia Fink.

When the Nazis invaded on Sept. 1, 1939, the family fled to their grandparents’ home, 21 kilometers away.

By the end of September, that town was under Russian control and, in 1940, they were arrested by the Russians, along with other Polish Jews, and sent to Siberia by train in cattle cars — all except for Eli, who managed to escape back to his grandparent’s house.

At stations along the way, they were given water and small amounts of soup or bread. Passengers relieved themselves through a hole in the carriage floor.

After a month of traveling, the family arrived in Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia. They were given a tiny room in a barracks and forced to work in a nearby forest chopping trees.

Anne remembers the cold from that time.

“We worked very hard in the forest,” she said, recalling one minus-30-degree day when her legs began to freeze.

“We were told if we leave work, we will be arrested and put in jail for a year. But I asked myself: ‘Should I die here or go to jail?’ I decided to leave and walk home.” 

When she got to their flimsy shelter, her legs were swollen. “But nobody caught me,” she said.

A woman brought her a cup of fresh milk while she lay on her straw mattress. “It was the best cup of milk I had in my life,” she said. 

Ruth remembers the hunger. 

“I would sometimes cry all night from the hunger pains,” she said. “Our family of six would share two pieces of bread. That’s the way it was.”

She also remembers people dying, like a man walking between the barracks who just fell down and died on the spot. “He dropped dead from hunger,” she said.

When the Nazis invaded the former Soviet Union in June 1941, Russia freed the Finks and the other Jewish prisoners. The family moved to a nearby village, where they lived in a cramped cottage with a small garden and were forced to work on a communal farm every summer.

With little in the way of warm clothing, they still suffered from the cold. That included having only one pair of boots between them; whoever was going outside got to wear them.

And there was always a shortage of food; seeds from some kindly Russian neighbours enabled them to plant a garden each year for something extra to eat. 

When the war ended in 1945, the Finks returned to Poland to discover their brother Eli was murdered in a death camp along with their grandparents. In all, about 80 members of their extended family were killed during the Holocaust. 

From Poland they went to Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany before coming to Canada. Ruth remembers her father dropping to his knees and kissing the ground when they got off at the train station in Winnipeg. “’Thank God we are finally here,’” she remembers him saying.

 In Winnipeg, the siblings found work and raised families. Their parents died in 1959 and 1960.

Today the three sisters–all widows—remain close, living in the same assisted living residence in Winnipeg. They meet regularly with their brother Sol and his wife, who live nearby.

They are glad to have their stories in the Shoah Foundation archive. “We want people to know what happened,” said Ruth, adding she is particularly interested in making sure young people know about the Holocaust.

“They can’t believe what happened or even understand it,” she said. “But they need to know.”

She also wants to make sure their story is there to counter those who deny the Holocaust. “It happened,” she said matter-of-factly. “We know the truth.”

Anne feels the same way. “I want people to know about it,” she said. “It was a very hard time.”

Anne’s daughter, Carol Sevitt, who lives in Toronto, believes their closeness today is due to their experiences during the war.

“They spent the war years enduring bitter hardships in Russia, facing hunger and deprivation, but being together somehow made it bearable,” she said, adding the loss of their brother and other relatives made them “hang onto each other even more.”

Growing up, she didn’t hear much about their Holocaust experience until one day, at age 16, she found her mother crying during a phone call and asked why.

That’s when she learned about the death of her uncle Eli. “It was the first I ever heard of it,” she said.

Carol attributes their reluctance to talk about the Holocaust to a desire to “protect us from those painful experiences.”

Plus, she added, since the siblings hadn’t been in a concentration camp, they didn’t feel like “real” Holocaust survivors.

“I told them, ‘You lost your homes, you were packed into a cattle car, you were in a slave labour camp, you lost your brother—of course you are Holocaust survivors,” Carol said.

For Marilyn Sinclair, who is leading the Shoah Foundation’s Last Chance Canada effort, “having four siblings talk about their experience gives us an incredible chance to hear a story from different perspectives… We feel like we have found a treasure, that they are still sharp and eager to share their stories.”

Looking back, Ruth said those years were hard. “But we survived. And we aren’t finished with life yet.”