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?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.
I finally know.
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.