Survivor’s Club author Debbi Bornstein Holinstat discusses the unexpected impact of her father’s journey to and liberation from Auschwitz.
Living History by Debbie Bornstein Holinstat
I have always thought that the tattoo of numbers dyed in blue ink on my father’s forearm was a badge of courage. I always thought he should talk about Auschwitz, not with a hint of embarrassment about his past but with pride for the obstacles he has conquered and with determination that others should remember.
Instead, my dad chose to wear long-sleeves for job interviews as a teen and stay completely silent about his experiences into adulthood. That is, until now.
It was probably tough for my father to padlock his story for seventy years, almost never mentioning what happened to him as a child in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Auschwitz death camp, and post-war Germany. It has been tougher, still, for him to step forward and speak out publicly — something he has just recently chosen to do with the release of Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, co-written by my father and me.
The desire to step forward started with his grandkids pushing to hear their Papa’s story. My nephew Jake asked my dad to speak alongside him as part of a special Bar Mitzvah Holocaust education project. Then, new information provided to my father by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem shed light on one miracle behind his survival.
It was information that demanded to be shared, and as his daughter — and a longtime writer — I knew it should be told in a book.
But what really fueled my father to speak was his liberation video. This video and photos of my dad were being manipulated on a website for Holocaust deniers. The site pointed to my father and other child survivors seen wearing prisoner uniforms at Auschwitz and concluded that Jews lied when they said children were killed upon arrival, or were gravely mistreated by Nazis.
Time to tell the story? Uh, yeah.
Suddenly, my father signed on to a book-writing project that would change the way I view history and modern politics — and change the way he views his life and his family’s legacy.
One of the first revelations came when we learned that my father’s father fought with every last bit of courage and wit he had, to protect his family and his community. He did not fight with force. As president of the Judenrat, Israel Bornstein set up a bribery scheme inside their open ghetto in Zarki, Poland. That scheme would make life bearable for many years, not just for the Bornstein family — but for the entire community. He encouraged and aided in many survivors’ escape. He looked out for family first but never stopped trying to help neighbors as well.
The Bornstein family, like so many other Polish Jews, realized too late that the winds of anti-Semitism were more than just bluster. Yet when misery was upon them, Israel Bornstein did what he could do stay positive and remain a constructive force for good.
As a mother, a daughter, and a journalist, I know there is an important lesson in there. I spend my days producing news and covering one of the most divisive political periods in modern American history. I spend my evenings trying to teach my children to be insightful, empathetic, and determined. After years of research into my father’s history, I don’t look at any of it quite the same.
When I report on a president’s decision to memorialize the Holocaust, omitting mention of Jews — it doesn’t feel like just a headline. It actually hurts. It pains me when pundits on the right defend those headlines, and it pains me when pundits on the left call Israelis “bullies.” As a fair-minded journalist, I give voice to all of it, but as the daughter of a survivor, I lament.
On the flip-side, I revel in knowing that my father’s story is being told at exactly the right time. Maybe it was fate that he waited so long to speak, like the fate that led him to liberation day? Maybe there’s need for one more reminder of what happens when power goes unchecked and bigotry goes unanswered, or what happens when Jews are made a scapegoat. It can’t be a bad time to note how Israel Bornstein’s non-violent resistance had influence on a whole community.
I also revel in seeing my father’s transformation. Now, he is rolling up his shirtsleeves and getting to work, sharing his story at speaking events from St. Paul, Minnesota to New York, New York. He wears his tattoo with pride, as he should.
For more information…
Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is available now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local independent bookstore.