For more than 70 years, Michael Bornstein refused to discuss what happened to his family when Nazis invaded his village in Poland during World War II. With the help of his daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, Bornstein finally sat down a few years ago to document his experiences surviving the war. In Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, he shares his story.
Bornstein was born in 1940, just a year after the Nazis stormed through Poland. The Nazis were a political party that controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. They wanted to get rid of Jewish people, like the Bornsteins. Eventually, six million Jewish people lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis in what is known as the Holocaust.
In 1944, Bornstein and his family were sent to Auschwitz, a Nazi prison and death camp. Bornstein was just four years old when Soviet soldiers liberated the prison nearly a year later. He was one of the youngest children to survive Auschwitz. Six years after the war ended, Bornstein and his family immigrated to the United States.
Several years ago, Bornstein decided it was time to talk about his experiences during and after the war. “Finally, with Debbie’s help,” wrote Bornstein in the preface to his memoir, “I am letting go of the stories my relatives and I kept tightly padlocked in our minds for more than half a century. It is time.”
Survivors Club tells the true story of the courage, determination, and sheer luck that led Bornstein and his family to survive the Holocaust. Bornstein and Holinstat spoke to TFK about their writing process and what they hope young readers will take away from the book.
TIME FOR KIDS:
How did you feel when your father finally told you he wanted to tell his story?
DEBBIE BORNSTEIN HOLINSTAT:
Honestly, I was surprised because I really didn’t think that he would ever want to talk about it. I was pretty shocked and thrilled. Then I felt this huge sense of responsibility to get his story right. In the end I feel very proud. The story is told. It’s down. It’s on record.
Why did you decide to write Survivor's Club?
Many survivors from Auschwitz are already gone. Those who remain need to tell our stories. It is part of history. It’s important for kids to understand what happened, so hopefully it won’t repeat itself. There are people in the world who deny the Holocaust, which scares me. Debbie [my daughter] and I were searching for my liberation photo from Auschwitz. Then we saw a website that was using my photo to argue that the Holocaust never happened.
We had already started to do some research into my dad’s story. Finding his photo on the Holocaust deniers’ website fueled us to get the job done and write this book.
You begin the book by describing what happened to your family before you were born. What kind of research did you do to be able to tell these stories in the book?
We had audio recordings from my dad’s aunt [and] a video recording of my grandmother, and we were in touch with a survivor who knew my father during the war. We had access to a diary of a very distant relative. It was long and detailed, but buried in there were all kinds of secrets about my grandfather’s role in the Judenrat [a council representing a Jewish community in German-occupied territory during World War II.] We didn’t realize how much more information there was to learn until we started researching. It was incredible to uncover this information.
While working on the book, was it hard to remember and write about such difficult topics?
It was particularly hard for my dad to talk about his life after the war because those are the parts that he really remembers. My father has spent his whole life intentionally forgetting and focusing on the positive, which is why he’s such a happy person. He’s an awesome American dad and grandpa. It was not easy to ask him the questions that required him to go back in his mind. We had some conversations that were incredibly difficult.
Survivor’s Club is both heartbreaking and uplifting. What do you hope kids will take away from this book?
I would hope kids would be more accepting of others after reading this book. When I came to the United States, I looked funny. I hardly spoke any English. I was bullied because I was different. And I hope kids would learn to be positive. My mother would often say, “This too shall pass.” I had a lot of negative experiences in my life, but I think people need to remember to stay positive and give others a chance.
At its core, the Holocaust is about discrimination and about judging people you don’t know, and that happened to my father. He faced an uphill battle with discrimination during and after the war. When he moved to America, his peers in elementary school bullied him. I don’t know if I would have embraced the weird kid with the tattoo on his arm. [At Auschwitz, identification numbers were tattooed on prisoners’ skin.] I do think this book reveals how easy it is for people to judge. Also, we hope that the book gives kids a full view of what happened to Holocaust survivors. I think that survivors’ stories don’t just end at liberation. There’s a lot to be learned in the way my dad and grandma restarted their lives, using their experiences to fuel them to get to a better life. My dad has had an incredible life. He’s living the American dream, but he didn’t have it handed to him.