Monday, May 14, 2018

Survivors Club

My family was greatly impacted by the Holocaust. For years, I've been trying to get behaviors of survivors and their offspring figured out. I haven't really. Not yet. The closest I've come was to read a book about the children of Holocaust survivors. I should look for another book like that - or find the one I read and read it again.

I talk about my interest in book club when appropriate. Last time it came up, a book club member suggested I might enjoy Michael Bornstein's Survivors Club. She even brought it to the next book club meeting so I could read it. Thank you so much!

I finally had a chance to read it this week. It was fascinating, even if it wasn't at all what I expected. I saw Survivors Club and I thought it was going to be about the life of the author as a survivor. It was more about his survival and the survival of others rather than about how they moved forward in life as survivors. This paragraph probably doesn't make much sense right now. Perhaps as I go on it will make more sense.

I'd hoped it would be a story about whether these survivors became assimilated or whether they stuck mostly to only other members of the survivors club. I wanted to know if they walked around with a huge "V for victim" on their foreheads. Other than young Michael feeling like he didn't fit in at P.S. 6 with his tattooed number on his arm and his heavy accent, none of this was ever discussed. If I could guess, I'd think he led a more assimilated life than my former husband who was the child of survivors. I found it interesting, too, that Michael's English was pretty darn good when he first arrived in the US. He studied English at the Displaced Persons camp in Munich while they waited to be settled in the United States. I compared that to my former husband who was born in the United States but really didn't speak English at the time he started kindergarten.

Michael Bornstein was born after the Germans were already occupying Poland. He spent his first few years in an open ghetto. His father was a Jewish leader in the ghetto, making life and death decisions... and probably saving more than a handful of lives in the process. He wasn't quite 4 years old when the ghetto was liquidated. Some of his mother's large family scattered away. Michael, his older brother, Samuel, their parents and their paternal grandmother were sent to Auschwitz. Auschwitz was liberated when Michael was still just 4 years old. He was one of very few children (only 52) under 8 years old who lived long enough to be liberated from Auschwitz.

The cover of the book is a photograph taken days after the liberation. When the Russians first came, they were focused on helping the prisoners. A few days later, they wanted photographic proof so they had the prisoners get dressed in newly cleaned uniforms to sort of reenact what had happened earlier. Bornstein first saw the photos as part of footage in the movie The Chosen. Imagine sitting in a movie that was probably difficult for him to watch in the first place and then see yourself on the screen being liberated?

For years, Bornstein felt he had a story to tell but he wanted whatever would become his record of the Holocaust to be completely accurate. It took him a lifetime to be ready. It took seeing his photo, looking for it online and discovering the overabundance of Holocaust deniers that are still out there. He was ready to tell his story.
For most of my life, I couldn't even answer the most basic question: How did I survive for six months at a camp known for killing children on arrival? How did I missed the "Death March" that cleared the camp of sixty thousand prisoners just a few days before Soviet troops arrived?

I finally know.
He had to tell his story. If the survivors don't tell their stories, "then the only voices left to hear will be those of the liars and the bigots." Bornstein's daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, was his co-author. Growing up with a survivor father was just the way it was. She and her siblings would ask questions. Sometimes they'd get answers. Often they would not. Like her father, though, Holinstat thought it was time to get his story told.
When I saw the website that used my dad's photo to try to manipulate history, though - that gave me fuel to get the job done. For every forum telling lies about the Holocaust today, let there be a hundred more that tell the truth.
The story starts when Sophie Bornstein, Michael's mother, was newly pregnant with Michael. The Germans have occupied their town of Zarki. Life for the Bornsteins and their extended Jonisch family was going to change much more than Sophie Bornstein can even imagine. Most people couldn't imagine what was coming. They couldn't believe that things could get as horrible as some folks said. They heard rumors of death camps? How could that be. Surely that was an exaggeration.

As I read about the awful treatment of the town's people by the Polish guards, I wondered what I'd start to wonder after reading The Librarian of Auschwitz. Would these guards have been such emboldened bullies had their been no Hitler?

Bornstein's description of the terrible smell that hit them in the noses as they first were released from the cattle cars that had taken them to Auschwitz brought me back to 9-11. "Harsh and revolting - it was the smell of burning flesh." (On 9-11-2001, I was living in a nearby suburb of NYC. I will never forget how the sky went from the most vibrant blue to a sick kind of gray. Smelling burning flesh. While I can't remember the smell, thank goodness, I remember the sensation and the thoughts accompanying it. Terrible.)

The image of prisoners having their heads shaved at Auschwitz always included an electric razor. Kind of like when you join the Marines. How could I not realized that straight razors would have been used. Bornstein was nicked as he was shaved, leaving blood trailing down his face, over his eyes and into his mouth. That's certainly a far worse image.

There are several times in the book that Bornstein eludes to the horrible things that he just can't write about. Those moments made me more sad, upset, angry, than the horrific moments he felt he could write about.

Miraculously, many of Bornstein's relatives survived.
Thirty-four hundred Jews lived and worked in Zarki before the Holocaust. Less than thirty returned. My family accounted for almost all of them. We were an elite club of survivors, with luck that had conquered all odds.
Imagine that! Michael's paternal grandmother was one of the survivors and it was due to her strength and tenacity and whatever else that Michael was a survivor. When he and his mother leave Zarki, they cannot convince the grandmother to go with them. The scenes when he describes the goodbyes to his grandmother were very sad to me. The family had been through so much, individually, and now they were separating, traveling in many different directions. Michael wondered if he could expect to ever seen them again.

Some of Michael's relatives on the Jonisch side of the family got visas to go to Japan due to the courageous act of Chiune Sugihara.

Some of Bornstein's family, like his Aunt Hilda, never talked about the past and was only looking forward. She focused on all the good in life. His mother, though, constantly spoke about Michael's father and brother. She, too, tried to focus on the good in life and the fact that they survived. But each survivor experienced the post war years differently.

The relatives of one of Michael's close relatives, Kristina-Ruth (called that because she was named Ruth by her parents but became Kristina when her parents sent her away as a Catholic when they went into hiding and could not take a small child with them), organized the first Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event in the United States in 1964. He was very involved in keeping Holocaust history in the forefront until his death at age 86 in 2012.

The family kiddush cup is a symbol of the strength of the Jews.
That family heirloom, one buried in my parents' backyard in Zarki, now stands as a symbol of a faith that can't be broken, no matter how great the test. Two generations after the Holocaust, from one survivor, there are four children and eleven grandchildren. There are hundreds of thousands more from other survivors and escapees. Hitler did not wipe out a religion. Today, our sense of identity is stronger than ever.
Bornstein sharing his story is so important, especially as most survivors of the Holocaust are now dying or very elderly. He is still relatively young at 78. The book was written at a level appropriate for middle grade students. Holocaust denial seems to be on the rise. We must never forget. I highly recommend this for young people. It's a book that adults can read and gain a different level of awareness.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult was a reread for me. I read it when it was initially released in 2014, after reading her prequel, Larger Than Life.

And how ironic that I could barely remember the details of this book, Leaving Time, in which a big theme is memory. I knew it was focused on elephants. And solving a murder. As I read, I remembered some other details. But I could not remember how the book ended. Was their resolution? Did they figure out "who done it?" All Jodi Picoult books have a twist ending, and I was pretty sure I would have remembered if this one had not. So I knew that reading the last chapter of the book before getting towards the end would have left me more confused and feeling even more forgetful!

I'm glad I did reread, though, as I got so much more out of the book club discussion than I would have had I not. Had I not, I think I would have sat there scratching my head!

I can't write a whole lot about the book without spoiling it so I won't say too much about the plot or the characters. The storyline is based on the murder of someone at an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. It's also got some paranormal aspects. Picoult did lots of research about both and it was evident in the reading. Unlike many of her books with realistic endings. many in my book club felt this one had an unbelievable ending. I'm not so sure how I feel about the ending.

Reading the book this time, I made connections to Lawrence Anthony's The Elephant Whisperer as well as Beloved by Toni Morrison. Suffice to say...

If you like Jodi Picoult, I'd recommend this book. If you've never read her, I'd recommend you try one of her books.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

I'm a Post Office Geek

Yes, I will admit it. I'm a post office geek. I got my first pen pal at 8 years old and I've never looked back. When this book was suggested for my community book club, I was right on board. The book is not available at our library, but the group was also interested in reading this.

I loved Devin Leonard's Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Services.  Granted, this book might not be for anyone. Heck, this very involved review might not be for everyone. But I have so much to say.

To be very brief, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has the same fascination with the post office that I do. It's full of interesting history. If you're interested in the role plays in keeping the post office afloat, you might want to read this book. If I've already bored you with what I've written, move on. This isn't the right book for you... and I won't be offended if you don't read the rest of my review.

While I was reading, I was happy to share tidbits of information with anyone who would listen. So much of what the book is about is so relevant today. "People often talk about how the postal service is lumbering and inefficient compared with private sector companies such as UPS and FedEx." After reading the book, I have a much better understanding of why this is so. Will the Post Office as we know it be around 10 years from now?

I love reading about Ben Franklin. I'm a Ben Franklin geek, too. I come by that honestly as I attended the University of Pennsylvania. Ben acquired a newspaper in his early days of Pennsylvania called the Pennsylvania Gazette. My alumni magazine is called the Pennsylvania Gazette.

The first post office
Benjamin Franklin, postmaster

Don't you love it when you can make a real life connection to a book you're reading as you're reading it? I was still reading Neither Snow nor Rain when I recently visited Philadelphia. I've probably passed this US Post Office many times. But I noticed it for the first time on this visit. When I researched information about this post office on Market and 3rd Streets, I came across a listing for  the B. Free Franklin Post Office & Museum inside. I was there after business hours. But wow, I need to go back to visit there!

As far back as the birth of our nation, Americans were conflicted about whether they wanted mail to be delivered by a private entity or if it was something they wanted the government to manage it. Even back then, there were many who feared that a massive federal government would be as oppressive as our rule by England.

As a result, the Post Office has always been politicized, with key positions being appointed to high ranking positions in the government. Postmaster general was a peach appointment. Wanamaker of Philadelphia department store fame raised funds for President Harrison's political campaign and as such, he became Harrison's postmaster general.
"Shall it be established for a precedent that a certain amount of cash entitles the giver or the financier to the position of Secretary of the Navy or Postmaster General?"
The Wanamaker Building in the distance

I also learned that "fake news" was a problem back then. Organizations used the postal service to spread disinformation through the mail as if it was true.
"... Kendall condemned the American Anti-Slavery Society, accusing it of using the public mails to spark a race war by disseminating "large masses of newspapers, pamphlets, tracts and almanacs, containing exaggerated, and in some instances, false accounts of the treatment of slaves, illustrated with cuts, calculated to operate on the passions of the colored men, and produce discontent, assassination, and servile war."
I always associated Wells Fargo with California. But Wells started a fish, oyster, bank notes and letter delivery service out of Albany, New York. Albany, New York! Who knew!

When I taught about the Oregon Trail to fifth graders, we always stressed how important letter writing was to those on the Trail and those left behind. But did I ever really think about how the mail traveled there? Letters took forever, but they were mostly expected. Would people have traveled west if they though they could never hear from family members again? I mean, they knew they'd probably never see family members again. But never hear from them?

And what about the fact that delivering mail on the frontier cost a lot more than delivering mail in the urban areas? That needed to balanced out. Rural Free Delivery was a phrase and now it has more meaning.

As I started out saying, I love letter writing. I love the act of finding the proper note card or stationery and then writing the letter. And I love receiving friendly letters in the mail. Don't you? In the early days of our nation, the post office encouraged people to write letters.
"It will do you and them good in several ways. Do not neglect it. Do not fall into the notion that you cannot write, unless you have some news to tell. Items of news may be gathered from the newspapers, but a friendly correspondence has, or should have, another purpose - to express sympathy and good feeling, and to keep up with an acquaintance with and a pleasurable remembrance of each other."
Have I convinced you to pick up a note card and pen and drop a line to a friend with whom you've been out of touch?

Home delivery of mail didn't start until 1863. And that was only for the larger cities. There were two to three deliveries per day. Which is why sometimes in an old movie you'll see someone send out a note inviting someone to dinner and then getting a response later that same day.

I read some other things that I'd learned last year when I was at the National Postal Museum in Washington, DC which is a part of the Smithsonian Institution. How mail was sorted by clerks on the moving chain and about the postal mascot, Owney, who wandered into the Albany, New York post office.

National Postal Museum

The type of sorting bags that were used on the mail trains.

You can see that my geekiness isn't new as these are my own photos. I wish I could find the photo that I had of a stuffed Owney!

Did you know that originally the Post Office Department only took care of delivery of letters and private services took care of packages? Going back to Postmaster General Wanamaker, who also happened to own a large department store, he attempted to add parcel post to the post office to increase his store's mail order business. There were so many arguments against it, mostly from the private delivery companies. Once parcel post was a thing, people mailed small children as it was less expensive than train tickets.

And how is this for a familiar - and current - argument?

"After all, they warned, once farmers got mail delivered to their homes, they would insist on ordering everything from Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Company."

Information about the establishment of airmail was very interesting, too. It made me wonder just how much mail set up to be delivered by airmail got lost? And how ironic - or messed up - that it took the USPS so long to modernize that by the time they had sophisticated technology to handle the mail, first class mail had slowed due to the other advancing technology called the internet.

FDR was a big fan of stamp collecting. I sort of wonder why I never got into stamp collecting. I have two first day covers around here. I got one for the Joseph Wharton stamp in 1981 and another for the Cinco de Mayo stamp in 1998... simply because I happened to be in San Antonio for the First Day Cover celebration.

In 1940 the average American received 211 pieces of mail each year. Thinking about how much mail my parents got per day... well, let's just say they quite possibly received 211 pieces of mail each week.

Postal collection boxes from around the world

There was a "Great Postal Strike of 1970." How do I not remember this? What would happen if there was a postal strike now? Would it matter that much?

What I do remember, though, was the transition from the Post Office Department (as a part of the cabinet) to the U.S. Postal Service which was going to be a separate agency. There was fear that the new entity would not survive.

First class mail continues to drop off and most of the mail delivered is junk mail. Most people email rather than "snail mail" In order to keep the post office going, the chief operating officer of the post office developed a relationship with found of's founder, Jeff Bezos. That's been a salvation. But amazon is all about making money and if they get another opportunity, I'm sure they'd run towards it, leaving the post office in the dust. For now, e-commerce more than makes up for the loss in first class mail.
"Every day, you hear, 'Thank God for Amazon.'"
There's also the weird combination of USPS delivering some small parcels for UPS and FedEx. It makes it confusing to know whether to expect something to arrive at our house or at our mailbox.

I found out when I moved to central Florida that I was technically on a rural route and that ZIP+4 was not used at all here. I'm surprised that my little bitty local post office is still open and that it wasn't closed in the rash of closings in 2013. Especially since so many post offices did close and our mail doesn't even get delivered out of our own post office. It comes from another larger post office that's probably equally close to my house. One of the smaller post offices in the area was slated to close. I checked the hours there. They are now open from 9AM - 12PM and then again from 1-4PM weekdays and just two hours on Saturday. Frankly, I'm surprised they are open for that many hours.
"The bottom line is this," Donahue said. "With the exception of the holidays and your birthday, think about your own mailbox. When was the last time you got a piece of mail that had a stamp on it? You don't get it." The questions kept coming and Donahue's answer remained the same. "If I take a survey, I'll get a lot of people here don't pay any bills by mail."
When I lived in NJ, nearly all my bills were paid online. For some reason, where I currently live, things are backwards and many companies still charge extra for paying online. Which makes no sense. I'm fairly certain I use more stamps here in a month than I used while living in NJ.

The book starts with a tale about a guy who would like to see as many post offices as he can see in all the states. He grew up in Queens, NY, and didn't go to a post office at all as a child. I can't even imagine how that happens. He's making up for lost time. Some old post offices are really so spectacular unlike today's that are more utilitarian. The book ends with the same post office fanatic. He got lost driving home from Pennsylvania, finding himself in Ohio. He gets off the road and checks out some post offices. He felt it was worth it since what is the guarantee that one of the beautiful New Deal post offices might still be open next time he was in Ohio. And that's how the book ends. Crash ending. A bit disappointing after I so thoroughly enjoyed this book.

I'll end with some unrelated facts I learned about:

  • Charles Ponzi used the mail to rip off his victims... using a pyramid scheme that he set up.
  • TWA started out as Transcontinental & Western Air and not Trans World Airways.
If you're still with me, thank you! Thank you! You might enjoy this book, too. This was a book I didn't need to discuss with a book club. Maybe because I talked about it with my husband, my daughter and anyone who would listen as I was reading. But now I can't wait until my community book club discusses this book. In addition to everything I've written about here, I've got pages of other notes. Will anyone else be as excited about the post office as I am?