Michael Bornstein’s presentation begins with a photo of his mother and her siblings on a family outing, strolling arm-in-arm in Poland just before the war. Pointing out their “pretty pocketbooks and nice hats,” his daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, calls it a “cautionary” photo. “They could have been us.” Sure, she added, “They were talking about the anti-Semitic bluster in Eastern Europe, and they debated, ‘Oh gosh should we be scared?’” But ultimately, the Jews never saw it coming.
“The Holocaust did not start with murder. It just started with anti-Semitism.” And she acknowledged, “I keep this photo in the back of my mind all the time.”
When the Third Reich came to power, Bornstein was not alive — he was born in 1940. By the time he arrived at Auschwitz with his parents, grandmother, and older brother, he was just 4 years old. A famous photo shows him with other children of Auschwitz being liberated.
It took 70 years and his grandson’s 2012 bar mitzvah for Bornstein to agree to speak about his experiences during the Holocaust.
In March, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his memoir, “The Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz,” which he wrote with Bornstein Holinstat, a television news producer for MSNBC. It’s now on the New York Times bestsellers list. The iconic photo of the children appears on the book’s cover.
On April 24, 11 teens and 25 adults gathered in the North Caldwell living room of Bornstein’s eldest grandson, Jake Wolf, to hear the pair speak at New Jersey USY’s Yom HaShoah event, Zikaron BaSalon — or memory in the living room — a project that began in Israel in 2010 and was adopted by USY three years ago as a way to memorialize the Holocaust for a teen audience. For the last two years, in addition to other locations around the country, Zikaron BaSalon has taken place in South Orange. Along with the living room crowd, teens from around the country were able to watch from their living rooms via a livestreaming feed.
Jake introduced his grandfather, something he has been doing since that year of his bar mitzvah at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell; his grandfather acknowledged, “Jake is a big part of the reason why I started opening up. I’m grateful that he pushed his Papa to tell the story.”
Bornstein told the group, “I never planned to do this. I never thought I would stand before a room full of young people and talk about what happened to me in Auschwitz. For 70 years it was just easier to forget.”
But he did speak. And he started by showing the number tattooed on his arm. “I was Prisoner B1148,” he said. “At 4 years old, I was a prisoner in a uniform. I was starving, too malnourished to grow hair, and I was ripped away from my mother, my father, and my brother Samuel/Shlomo.”
He added a caveat to his memories: “It’s difficult, at 4 years old, to be sure what I remember and what family members told me.” That said, “I do seem to remember the smell of burning flesh in Auschwitz and the sound of boots, marching. After the war I remember being ruthlessly teased for being a Jew.” And he added, “As an adult, I get a little nervous in the New York subway, thinking about a cramped cattle car ride to Auschwitz.”
While his daughter offered historical context and some of the information gained through the extensive research they undertook for the book, he detailed specific moments of his journey. They described the time he spent in the Zarki Ghetto, where his father, as head of the Judenrat, used his position and the funds at his disposal to bribe Nazis to save Jews (one of them was Marvin Zborowski, a prominent benefactor of Yad Vashem); the Pionki labor camp, a munitions factory, where the owner offered unusual kindnesses, like providing a radio in the factory, and moving older workers to administrative posts so they could sit down; and Auschwitz, where his father and brother were murdered.
His tale of survival is full of luck and inexplicable moments — that he was permitted to stay at Pionki, where children were not allowed; that he was not gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz, the usual outcome for someone as young as he was; that his mother was able to smuggle him from the children’s area at Auschwitz to the women’s area, where he lived with his grandmother even after his mother was moved to an Austrian labor camp; and that his grandmother took him to the infirmary at Auschwitz just days before liberation because he was so sick, enabling the pair to avoid a death march that he believes almost certainly would have killed them.
Of 3,400 Jews in Zarki before the war, just 27 survived. Among them were his grandmother and all six of her siblings.
Bornstein showed the teenagers the family’s kiddush cup, the only remnant of their affluent life in Zarki before the war, now used at every family celebration.
Even after the Holocaust when his family moved to Munich, Germany, and later New York City, he was bullied, assaulted, and isolated by his peers. He challenged the teens in attendance: “Will you be a grownup who worries about others, but says nothing? Or will you be a person who takes a stand when you see a person or group being treated unfairly?”
His words made an impact. “You hear Holocaust stories all the time. And you can kind of start to become numb,” said Hannah Eiger, 16, of Manalapan. “For me, this presentation brought it to life again.”
She added that while working with USY, “I sometimes forget why I do it. And this kind of put it in perspective. It’s not just about getting people [to an event]. It’s about Judaism.”