Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

Imagine going to the movies one day in the 1980s with your daughter and seeing yourself in the movie you are watching. That’s exactly what happened to Michael Bornstein and his daughter Debbie. The movie was The Chosen and in one scene, two young Jewish boys are watching a newsreel showing footage of the liberation of children from Auschwitz, and there right at the front of the line of children, was Michael Bornstein, age 4.   

Like so many Holocaust survivors, Michael Bornstein never really spoke about his childhood during the Holocaust, even after seeing himself as part of a movie. But, years later, Michael began to realize that his survival was a indeed miracle, and after doing a Google search, he also realized that the liberation images were (and sadly still are) being manipulated by Holocaust deniers to prove that it was all a Jewish lie, or that the Jews made up stories about their children being killed on arrival at Auschwitz, or that it was just a labor camp and not a death camp. Michael decided it was time to tell the story of the Bornstein family.

Michael begins his narrative in September 1939, a year before he was born, when German planes dropped bombs on the small village of Żarki, Poland where the Bornsteins lived, killing residents and destroying homes and synagogue.  Almost immediately, the village was invaded by Nazi solders who went from house to house collecting anything of value from Jewish families, including the Bornsteins. Luckily, Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, managed to bury some valuables in the backyard including a Kaddish cup, a family heirloom.  

Jews who weren’t shot immediately were rounded up and put into the Jewish ghetto in Żarki, where Michael was born. His father was made head of the Jewish Council, with the difficult job of deciding who would be sent to die in a death camp and who wouldn’t be. Interestingly, although the head of the local Gestapo, Officer Schmitt, was an incredibly cold-hearted man, Zarki remained a somewhat open ghetto, allowing the remaining Jews to conduct some trade with the local Polish residents. It didn’t hurt that Israel was able to continually bribe him to save many lives, as well.  

One of the things that really struck me was the strength of the Bornstein family, Israel, wife Sophie, grandmother Dora, older brother Samuel and now Michael is so evident throughout the narrative. In the face of deportations of fellow Jews, hunger, cold, and sickness, the family struggled but remained strong and faithful. Once it was decided that the Zarki ghetto would be liquidated, and all Jews sent to Treblinka, Schmitt made an exception of Israel and his family, who were sent to a labor camp instead.

Unfortunately, in July 1944, the Bornsteins were all sent to Auschwitz. Sophie, Dora and Michael were immediately separated from Israel and Samuel and it wasn’t until much later that Sophie learned the fate of her husband and son. Michael was only four years old by then, and sent to live in the Kinderlager, where older kids stole his food but also gave him some points that helped him survive. Eventually, Sophie snuck him into the women’s barracks where she and Dora were, and he remained there, even after she was sent to another labor camp. It was illness that ultimately saved Michael’s life. As the Russian Army approached Auschwitz, the Germans rounded up the remaining Jewish prisoners and began what is known as the Death March to cover their atrocities. Michael was left in the infirmary and survived with his grandmother, Dora. 

The aftermath of the war, and the reunion of the remaining members of the Bornstein and of Sophie’s Jonisch family, and forming the family's Survivor Club, takes up the rest of Michael’s narrative. One story that I found particularly poignant is that of Michael’s cousin Ruth Jonisch, who found herself in a Catholic Convent, had her name changed to Kristina, and who had to be taught to hate Jews in order to survive. The years after being reunited with the Jonisch family are very interesting reading.

By now, you must be wondering how Michael knows so much about the time before he was born and the years he lived under the Nazis, given his age at the time. Most of his story is the result of research and interviews with family members. So while it isn’t actually a first hand account, it is still a compelling story about strength, some lucky coincidences, and mostly about family love.

There is a section of photographs, a Glossary and a Bornstein Family Who's Who also included in the back matter. And be sure to read Michael Bornstein's illuminating Preface and Afterword, as well.

Interestingly, the review of the movie, The Chosen, written by Janet Maslin and published April 30, 1982 in the New York Times, ended with these warning: 
''The Chosen'' is rated PG (''Parental Guidance Suggested''). It contains brief but graphic footage of the liberation of concentration-camp inmates after World War II." 

I feel I need to echo that warning: 

Survivor’s Club is a very readable nonfiction narrative, but there are some graphic descriptions of the Nazi treatment of the Jews in it that may be difficult for some sensitive readers. 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a fascinating read. I am sure it will be tough to read as well. I look forward to checking it out. Thanks so much for sharing!