BOSTON – Over 70 years after he made it through the Holocaust as a young boy, Michael Bornstein decided to write a book about his experiences. Aimed at young readers and written with his daughter Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, “Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz,” has gone on to become a bestseller.
On Sept. 25, just a few days before the High Holidays, Bornstein and Holinstat (who is also a TV producer for MSNBC) discussed the book before a sold-out audience as part of the Anti-Defamation League New England’s Breaking Barriers Speaker Series. The discussion was moderated by ADL New England director Robert Trestan.
During World War II, Bornstein was imprisoned at Auschwitz with his parents, Israel and Sophie; his older brother, Samuel; and his grandmother, Dora. He lost his father and brother to the gas chambers, and was imprisoned for six months.
“I’ll show you the tattoo,” he told the audience. “It’s probably difficult to see from where you are. It won’t wash off.”
“I was four years old,” he said. “The only things I can recall are what my family told me.”
One recollection was how illness unexpectedly saved his life. He said his grandmother kept him “hidden and safe” under straw during the day. Although the Nazis sent 60,000 Auschwitz inmates on a death march near the end of the war, Bornstein was sheltered by his grandmother. The camp was liberated by the Red Army on Jan. 27, 1945; young Bornstein appears in footage of the liberation that was shown to the audience.
After the war, the difficulties continued for surviving members of the family. Finding their way back to their native Zarki, Poland, they learned that their home had been occupied and their property confiscated.
Although the family suffered losses, there was reason for hope. The vandals had not taken the family Kiddush cup, which remains in use today, Bornstein said. Meanwhile, his mother Sophie would learn that all of her six brothers and sisters had survived the Holocaust. One of them, Sylvia Smoller, escaped via Siberia and Japan. She went on to the U.S. and attended Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Her son – Michael Bornstein’s cousin – Dr. Jordan Smoller, is a Harvard psychiatry professor.
As for Bornstein, he went on to a long career in pharmaceutical research, and became a husband and a father of four. Today he has 12 grandchildren, which has led him to gradually overcome his reluctance to discuss his past.
“All [of the grandchildren] wanted to know something about my background and the Holocaust,” Bornstein said. “It’s very difficult to say no to your grandchildren.”
One in particular, Jake, wanted to learn more about the Holocaust for his bar mitzvah project some years back. Bornstein found a document at Yad Vashem that listed the illness that kept him out of the death march.
“He said it gave him permission to start digging more,” Holinstat said. “I contacted survivors who knew my father’s family well.”
Bornstein also was aware of the need to tell the truth in the face of Holocaust deniers – especially after seeing the footage of the liberation of Auschwitz on a Holocaust denial website.
“It was fuel for my father,” Holinstat said. “If Holocaust deniers are talking, he knew he wanted to shout louder.”
Motivated to preserve his account for posterity, Bornstein worked with his daughter on Survivors Club. It took Holinstat nearly two years to research the book, but “the writing came quickly,” she said.
“I thought I would self-publish,” Holinstat recalled. Instead, a bidding war broke out between the nation’s three largest publishers – Little, Brown; Simon & Schuster; and Macmillan. The book was published in 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is part of Macmillan.
The authors see the book as a corrective to anti-Semitism as well as to gaps in knowledge – such as the 22 percent of millennials who have not heard of the Holocaust.
“I say, ‘Why is everybody forgetting?’” Holinstat asked. “I don’t understand why we got to this point. Our only weapon is education.”
It’s a goal shared by the ADL of New England as it urges Massachusetts legislators to support the Genocide Education Act. The legislation would mandate education on acts of genocide for Massachusetts students.
“We need to make sure generations coming up know this,” Trestan said. “It’s a Jewish story, but it’s really just a human story.”