Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale
Michael Bornstein’s Holocaust survival story is the stuff that legends are made of. A few years ago, Bornstein ran across a photo of footage taken by Soviet troops of the recently liberated child survivors at Auschwitz. The documentary wasn’t actually from the day of liberation of the concentration camp. It was filmed as a reenactment a few days later. The children were asked to put on for the last time the striped, threadbare dingy clothes they wore in the concentration camp: only this time they wore them on top of the regular clothes they found in the “Canada” warehouse at Auschwitz, where the Nazis deposited the belongings of prisoners upon arrival. To his own surprise, Michael Bornstein, by now a grandfather, recognized himself in that photograph. He is the gaunt four-year-old boy with wispy, short hair standing in the front. It was miraculous that he had survived. The odds were heavily stacked against him.
Out of the millions of inmates at Auschwitz, fewer than 3000 were liberated by the Soviets and only 52 of them were children under the age of eight. Seeing this picture stirred something in him: not so much full-fledged memories, since Michael had been too young to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, as the desire to record his family’s incredible survival story. With the help of archival research, his father’s documents and interviews with neighbors and surviving relatives, Michael Bornstein and his daughter, NBC and MSNBC News producer Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, co-wrote his Holocaust memoir, aptly calling it Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although the title alludes primarily to the handful of children who survived Auschwitz, it also refers to Michael’s family. Out of the 3,200 Jews living in Zarki at the time of the Nazi invasion in September 1939, about 30 survived. Most of the survivors were members of the Bornstein family.
Historically, Michael Bornstein’s family and their neighbors experienced first-hand almost every stage of Nazi atrocities in Poland. Upon invading their little town, Zarki, the Wehrmacht burned it to the ground. They rounded up hundreds of Jews and shot them in nearby forests, in the streets and even in their own homes. Soon thereafter, the Nazis set up a Jewish Ghetto. Unlike larger ghettos throughout Poland, however, for most of its existence, the one in Zarki remained open, allowing some life-sustaining trade and interaction with the local Polish population. Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, was elected Jewish Council President, a heavy responsibility that he reluctantly accepted. He and his resilient and courageous wife, Sophie, did their best to protect not only their own nuclear family—their older son Samuel and Michael, who was still a baby—but also the entire Jewish community of their town.
As in the case of the other Jewish ghettos in Poland, life for Jews in Zarki was a constant struggle to ward off hunger, forced labor, and the relentless waves of deportations to death camps. For awhile, Israel Bornstein managed to round up the resources to bribe the local Gestapo chief, Officer Schmitt, into giving their community more food and occasionally decreasing their burdens. Schmitt, though a callous man and a true Nazi believer was, fortunately, also venal. But small-scale bribery proved to be no match for the immense Nazi killing machine. By the end of September 1942, most of the Jewish inhabitants of Zarki were sent to die at Treblinka. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his “humanity,” Schmitt made one exception. He spared Israel Bornstein and his nuclear family from death. They, along with Israel’s mother (Dora), were sent to a more lenient labor camp until they, too, were eventually dispatched to Auschwitz. As Michael was to find out later, his father and older brother both perished there.
Michael, by now a toddler, was placed in a children’s section of the concentration camp. Had his mother not managed to sneak him into the women’s camp after a few weeks, he most likely wouldn’t have made it. The older children, themselves starving, were constantly stealing most of his meager portions of daily gruel. Under the wing of his mother and grandmother, Michael managed to live in hiding from day to day. When his mother was reassigned to another labor camp, the little boy was left under the sole protection of his paternal grandmother. Ironically, it was illness that ultimately saved his life. Suffering from high fever, he was placed in the infirmary around the time the Nazis began to force the Auschwitz prisoners on the fatal death marches. From the infirmary window, Michael watched the beleaguered, freezing prisoners file away from the camp under the blows of the Nazi guards. The story of his liberation by the Allies a few days later is captured by the Soviet footage. But the inspiring tale of his survival—Survivors Club–has only now been told.