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Lowell Stories: Women's History

Sally Birke (1920-20120

Sally Birke, Private Family Collection


Obituary in

"Sally Birke (1920-2012), born Sura Dymantsztajn in Lodz, Poland on November 12, 1920, the welcoming other half of Birke's clothing store in downtown Lowell, MA, passed away on December 28, 2012. Sally was the quintessential helpful retailer, treasured by her faithful customers for her skill and friendship. She was the voice of welcome at Birke's who gently spoke up to her irascible husband Nathan Birke in order to protect her customers from his intolerant declarations that they weren't allowed to browse or be trusted to ascend to the store's second floor.
“Sally built a loyal following for the store by spotting new merchandise that she felt would be perfect for particular customers and setting it aside for them. Her awareness of her customers' likes and dislikes and her sense of style and taste combined with her friendliness and small food treats, won her the affection of a wide variety of people. Often two or three generations from the same family would speak of her with special fondness.
“At the beginning of World War II, at the age of 18, she started out with Nathan, at her mother's request, to find her older brother who was avoiding the German army. As the horrors of the invading Nazis and the cooperating Poles became more obvious, Sally and Nathan were forced to flee to the former Soviet Union where they married and spent the remainder of the war. Sally was the skilled operator of an elevator at a coal mine in Siberia. During this period of forced exile, Sally bore two children, Pinchus and Chaim, both of whom died in infancy.
“At the end of the war Sally returned to Poland to discover that her family had all died. Her sister Leia died of starvation, her mother Szifra and 8 year old brother Avram, were gassed at Auschwitz. Her father Eliezer and older brother Moishe Aaron were never traced. She and Nathan (whose family was also killed by the Nazis) immediately left Poland and eventually made their way to Lowell, where they founded their first store on Back Central Street in 1947. In 1950 they moved the store to Gorham Street and finally opened the Market Street location in 1960 -- at the site of the current Birke Building.
“Despite such devastating losses at a young age, Sally acquired the strength and resilience to find the best in people and to create a life full of hope for the future and satisfaction with the present. She had four more children, son Lenny of Salisbury, NH, daughters Szifra of Lowell, Massachusetts and Roz of E. Greenwich, Rhode Island and son Richard of Portland Oregon. She was thrilled with her seven grandchildren, Tov, Kol, Jessica, Jaclyn, Ariel, Eliezer, and Esme and her three great-granddaughters Rachel, Samantha and Paige. Her daughters-in-law Susan Hankin-Birke, Salisbury, New Hampshire, and Angela Zehava, Portland, Oregon and sons-in-law Neil Blitz, E. Greenwich, Rhode Island and Jay Livingston, Lowell, Massachusetts meant a great deal to Sally.
“To the end, and despite major memory loss, Sally was full of stories and humor. Her no-nonsense reflections on life, relationships and economics are enjoyed and valued by her family. Her resilience and persistence, despite the staggering blows she suffered, has been an inspiration to many. The joy and dignity of her later years offers encouragement that life can get better and better.
“The family requests that those wishing to honor Sally's life remember that standing up to injustice is the only way to be sure that prejudice, bullying and xenophobia don't grow into crimes against humanity.”

Trailer for film: "Browsing Through Birke's" A documentary about Birke's was shown on WGBH and around the country. The film features Sally and captures her humor and vitality alongside her extraordinarily difficult life circumstances.