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Sally Birke: A Life Remembered

February 13, 2013


On December 28, 2012, Sally Birke passed away at the age of 92. To honor her rich life — the majority of which was spent in Lowell, MA — the family held a memorial celebration on January 5, 2013, at Lowell’s American Textile History Museum. We invite you to watch the video of this uplifting event, and share your own comments, memories, and wishes for Sally Birke, a remarkable, loving woman who will be so greatly missed.

>>  Sally Birke Obituary [Lowell Sun]CLICK HERE

“Unpacking the memories behind a family store” — Hadassah Update, December 2012

January 2, 2013

Hadassah Update: COM Bulletin, Dec. 2012

The following is a feature story that appeared in the Hadassah update of the Congregation of Moses (COM) Bulletin (Kalamazoo, Michigan):

The 26 Hadassah members and guests who attended the October movie-luncheon meeting were treated to the story of Nathan and Sally Birke and their rather unusual marriage and department store. Imagine walking into a retail business and being greeted by a large “NO BROWSING” sign. Then, when you ask if a jacket comes in another color or size, the owner kicks you out and tells you to shop elsewhere. That was the experience of generations who shopped at Birke’s Department Store in downtown Lowell, Mass., often described as the T.J. Maxx or Marshalls of its day with regard to quality and pricing.

The movie had an introduction by Szifra Birke, daughter of Nathan and Sally, who shared her memories of her parents’ past. After the movie, with technology expertise from Joyce Camhi and Diane Fogel, we established a Skype connection with Szifra, and she graciously shared with us many more memories and some challenges she faced when growing up. We wanted to do something to show our appreciation to Szifra and ordered flowers to be delivered to her mother, Sally, now in a nursing home. Coincidentally, it was Sally’s birthday. We later got this note from Szifra: “Thank you all so much for your incredibly thoughtful gesture for my mom. Her birthday flower arrangement is gorgeous. When I saw that they were from the Kalamazoo Hadassah, I was filled with emotion. Thank you again for such a sweet and kind gesture.”

And thank you, Maxine Berke, our new member, for bringing this movie to us. Browsing Through Birke’s left us nostalgic for the characters who populated our childhoods: tough, funny, resilient people who had weathered unimaginable storms, and who somehow managed to continue to be productive, creative life forces.




A Birke’s Department Store Memory, Submitted by Hersh Goldman

July 26, 2012

Letter to the Editor, Jewish Advocate

“I saw the article about Birke’s clothing store in Lowell with the ‘No Browsing’ sign. I grew up in Lowell and took the unique store-front sign for granted. After I got married, my brother-in-law who grew up in Scranton, PA visited us. My wife and I took him on a walking tour of downtown Lowell. We walked along as I pointed out this and that. Suddenly, my brother-in-law stopped in his tracks and I backed up to see why he stopped. He was staring at the ‘No Browsing’ sign in Birke’s store. He said, ‘What’s this? I don’t believe it! Is this for real? How can he stay in business? I think I’m going to go in and walk around and browse and see if he tells me no browsing.’ But we found the store to be closed. The store and its sign seemed to make a bigger impression on my brother-in-law than any other sight in Lowell…

I always thought of Nathan and Sally Birke as Boris and Natasha, the two Russian spies in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show. Nathan Birke was short and squat and had a sly half smile and Sara was tall, elegant and poker faced. I thought she looked a little like Ava Gardner.

Nathan Birke made me laugh. He didn’t have anything funny to say but he sounded funny. He swore with a heavy accent. I never heard anyone over forty swear as much as he did. It was ‘f’ this and ‘f’ that and the words were uttered as calmly as though they weren’t considered the least bit offensive. His heavy Yiddish accent made the short ‘u’ vowel-sound in the F-word come across like the European pronunciation to the Hebrew vowel, ‘kometz’. Every time Birke swore I couldn’t help laughing, even though he wasn’t trying to be funny. Normally I would feel it is rude to laugh at a person’s accent. But in Birke’s case I felt that it should be permissible. If he was rude enough to swear so much it shouldn’t be inappropriately rude for me to laugh at the accent he swore in.

His wife never swore. I couldn’t imagine her as ever swearing. They were truly an odd couple.”

Hersh Goldman
July 11, 2012
Swampscott, MA

“Unpacking the memories of a family store” – A Jewish Advocate Feature Story, published June 29

July 15, 2012

With documentary, daughter delves into her parents’ past

By Tana Goldberg, Special to the Jewish Advocate  |  Published June 29, 2012 

Imagine walking into a department store and being greeted by a large “NO BROWSING” sign. Then, when you ask if a jacket comes in another color or size, the owner kicks you out and tells you to shop elsewhere.

That was the experience of generations who shopped at Birke’s Department Store in downtown Lowell, often described as the T.J. Maxx or Marshalls of its day with regard to quality and pricing. However, shopping at Birke’s was not for the timid or faint-hearted – that is, if owner Nathan Birke was around.

But behind the gruff exterior was a man who could crack you up with a joke and break your heart with his story.

That story has been turned into a documentary film, “Browsing Through Birke’s,” by his oldest daughter, Szifra Birke. “It was a funny title for the film, because you couldn’t browse through Birke’s if my father was there,” Szifra said. Fortunately for the success of the store, Nathan was not in Birke’s much of the time, as he was out meeting with vendors and wholesalers.

But “Browsing Through Birke’s” is more about a marriage than it is about merchandise.

The tale begins on the streets of Lodz, Poland, in late 1939, after the city had fallen under Nazi occupation.

One day, Nathan Birke, a prosperous entrepreneur in his 30s, happened to offer a ride to an itinerant carpenter named Lazer. When they arrived at Lazer’s home, he invited Nathan inside because it was close to curfew. There, Nathan met Lazer’s beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Sally. As she would later tell the story, Nathan took one look at her and “he never left.”

Click here to read the complete story (in PDF document)

“Browsing Through Birke’s” screens at Congregation Beth Israel in Andover, MA

April 10, 2012

On March 24, 2012, “Browsing Through Birke’s” screened at Congregation Beth Israel in Andover, MA, and included a post-film Q&A with Szifra Birke. Many of the people who attended had memories of the Lowell store and their shopping experience there, which they agreed was unlike any other. Among the attendees were Carol Courtessi Marchand, Marsha Driscoll McGee, Ann Kinneen Desrosiers, Elaine Quigley Sheehan (alias “Dungaree Doll”), and Barbara Albert Sturtevant, who all exclaimed:

“We loved Szifra’s presentation! As graduates of the ‘Birke’s School of Shopping,’ we always felt so fashionable because our clothes came from New York!”

A remarkable time was had by all — a special thanks to everyone who attended and shared so many of their memories!

Welcome: The Birke Story

May 13, 2010

Dear Friends:

Thank you so much for visiting this special site dedicated to a truly remarkable story: that of my parents, Nathan and Sally Birke, and the community they created in their adopted home of Lowell, Massachusetts. It is in their honor that I helped produce the hour-long documentary film “Browsing Through Birke’s,” which highlights the journey my parents made as Holocaust survivors in Poland to entrepreneurs and business-owners in the United States. This site was not just created to honor their spirit, but to continue telling their story through the eyes and voices of all of those who met or befriended them.

As you learn more about their journey and the circumstances that brought them to America, I hope you will keep in mind your own stories of family, friendship, and success. I hope you will use this website to stay connected to us and to share your own memories and thoughts of the Birke family, including our beloved Birke’s Department Store. Feel free to leave your comments on this page anytime or contact me personally at

Thank you for visiting, and please stay in touch!


Szifra Birke

Visit the Birke’s Department Store Photo Gallery with amazing photos by Kevin Harkins