The New York Times-bestselling incredible true story of Michael Bornsteinwho at age 4 was one of the youngest children to be liberated from the Auschwitz concentration campand of his family
“Both moving and memorable, combining the emotional resolve of a memoir with the rhythm of a novel.” New York Times Book Review
In 1945, in a now-famous piece of World War II archival footage, four-year-old Michael Bornstein was filmed by Soviet soldiers as he was carried out of Auschwitz in his grandmother’s arms. Survivors Club tells the unforgettable story of how a father’s courageous wit, a mother’s fierce love, and one perfectly timed illness saved his life, and how others in his family from Zarki, Poland, dodged death at the hands of the Nazis time and again with incredible deftness.
Working from his own recollections as well as extensive interviews with relatives and survivors who knew the family, Michael relates his inspirational Holocaust survival story with the help of his daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat. Shocking, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting, this narrative nonfiction offers an indelible depiction of what happened to one Polish village in the wake of the WWII German invasion in 1939.
This thoroughly-researched and documented middle grade nonfiction book can be worked into multiple aspects of the common core curriculum.
A New York City Public Library Notable Best Book for Teens
“A wrenching, shocking, and ultimately inspiring memoir, a tale of unrelenting optimism and resilience that is no less than miraculous . . . [Survivors Club] is hauntingly timely.” Esquire
“Enhanced by meticulous archival research, Bornstein’s story unfolds in novelistic form . . . This moving memoir [is] an important witness to the capacity for human evil and resilience.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
About the Author
Michael Bornstein survived for seven months inside Auschwitz, where the average lifespan of a child was just two weeks. Six years after his liberation, he immigrated to the United States. Michael graduated from Fordham University, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and worked in pharmaceutical research and development for more than forty years. Now retired, Michael lives with his wife in New York City and speaks frequently to schools and other groups about his experiences in the Holocaust. He wrote Survivors Club alongside his third of four children, Debbie.
Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is Michael’s third of four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she lives in North Caldwell, New Jersey. She also visits schools with her father, and has been working with him for two years, helping him research and write his memoir, although she has grown up hearing many of these stories her entire life.
Read an Excerpt
The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz
By Michael Bornstein, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2017 Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat
All rights reserved.
REMEMBER THE CUP
"Sophie, keep Samuel with you and watch through the window," Papa called to Mamishu, my mother. "Do not move."
Papa grabbed a burlap sack and raced from the kitchen to the bedroom, filling the bag with silver picture frames, some crystal, my mother's pearls, and many gold coins.
It was October 1939, and German soldiers were coming to my family's redbrick house on Sosnawa Street in Zarki, Poland.
Mamishu stood by the living room window as daylight was beginning to dim outside and tapped her index finger nervously against my older brother Samuel's small, dimpled hand. Her other hand rested on her swollen belly, where I was still in a blissful state of coming into being.
"Israel, we should have thought of this sooner! It's too late. Just put it all under our bed and let's hope they don't check there. You're acting crazy!"
"I know exactly what I'm doing, Sophie. Just stay right there and tell me when they get close."
When I heard about this scene years later, I was always told that Papa spoke with a voice so soothing, it hardly matched the frantic movements Mamishu could see reflected in the window.
Through the glass she was watching packs of German soldiers, neat yet chilling in their button-front uniforms, tall black boots, and matching red armbands with a spiderlike symbol inside a white circle. Every soldier carried a sidearm or a rifle slung over his shoulder. The troops marched into our neighbors' houses, coming out minutes later with piles of furs, leather coats, and jewelry-filled pillowcases draped over their arms.
Four-year-old Samuel buried his face into the folds of Mamishu's layered peach-colored skirt each time a gunshot rang out from inside a neighbor's home.
The soldiers were only three houses away now, and Mamishu looked nervously from the front door to the back as my father raced about the house. Bobeshi — that's the Yiddish endearment the family used for Grandma Dora, my father's mother, with whom we lived — sat watching the scene from the sofa.
Earlier that day, German soldiers had announced they would be going door-to-door that afternoon and ordered Jewish residents to be prepared to hand over whatever valuables Germany's Nazi (short for National Socialist) government requested. Under normal circumstances you would call it robbery. The German invaders, however, insisted it was a Jew's responsibility to contribute to the Third Reich (the name the Nazis used for their regime) and help make it richer and stronger.
In our house there would have been plenty to steal. Papa was an accountant and had always been careful to save his money. That day, when soldiers began taking "contributions," Papa was hell-bent on protecting what we had.
"If you're so determined to do this, at least remember the cup!" Mamishu called softly, her eyes still trained out the living room window.
"I've already got it," Papa said, ducking out into the backyard as soldiers' voices grew louder and closer.
From the back door, he counted his steps in Yiddish: "Eyn, tsvey, dray, fir, finef, zeks ..." He stopped at a soft spot in the soil and dug with his hands until his fingers were black with dirt. To a passerby, he would have looked like a man planting bulbs in the fall and looking forward to a spring of blossoms. I guess you could say my father was planting. He was burying our family's seeds of hope.
Within a minute, a hidden cavity appeared — a hole reinforced with a piece of scrap metal Papa had bent into a cylindrical shape. It was a makeshift vault, into which he dropped the sack with all our valuables — including one small unadorned silver cup, called a kiddush cup, which is used on Shabbat (the Sabbath). That's a holy day celebrated every week in Jewish homes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It's marked by prayer, wine, and song. Shabbat is intended to be a time of rest and the most peaceful day of the week. The kiddush cup is raised in gratitude.
But there hadn't been much to sing about or celebrate in Zarki since the invasion — especially for Jews. Everything had changed in a matter of weeks.
Jews could not ride buses, and Jewish children weren't allowed to go to school anymore. The Nazis shut down or took over most Jewish businesses. A strict 8:00 p.m. curfew was enforced; anyone caught outside after curfew was arrested or killed. Jews were forced to wear white bands around their arms with a blue six-point Star of David on them so that everyone would know who was Jewish.
When Nazi soldiers banged at the door, Mamishu let out a strange screech — like a scream that was strangled by fear. She had meant to calmly say Come in, but of course pleasantries weren't necessary. The door was pushed open before Mamishu even found her voice.
Please appear, please appear, please come back, my mother surely begged my father in her mind as two soldiers barged in, one tall, one squat.
As if he'd been summoned telekinetically, her husband materialized in the living room doorframe — his shirt retucked and his expression giving no hint at the panic he'd been on the verge of just moments before. His hands, which he'd soiled from digging in the dirt, were now as clean and unsuspicious as his expression. Papa had gotten the job done.
"We need five hundred zlotys and your jewels! Now!" the tall soldier demanded.
"Of course," Papa said, handing over a pile of cash, along with a charm necklace worth little and a man's pinky ring he had once found on a train without ever being able to identify the owner. He had left these two meaningless items in a side-table drawer before the soldiers arrived, anticipating they would want some jewelry.
"Surely you can't expect us to believe this is all you have," the soldier said as he gave his comrade a nod.
The short soldier quickly moved closer to Samuel and my mother, and he pulled out his sidearm, waving it wildly in their direction. "I see you have so much that is valuable. I am sure you can do better." A dark expression crossed his face as he knelt down in front of Samuel — clearly taking notice of my brother's left hand.
Samuel's right hand clutched Mamishu's skirt, but his left hung at his side, closed in a tight fist.
"Why don't you open your hand, child?" the soldier asked in a gentle voice. "Let's see what you're hiding."
Mamishu was crying — terrified that the soldier had taken notice of Samuel. She knew her little collector wasn't hiding anything precious, though. In fact, she knew before he uncurled his doughy little fingers what would be resting on his palm.
"It's just a little rock, sir," Mamishu said. "He collects them."
Samuel revealed a small round gray stone — the kind of pebble you could find on any street in Poland. Samuel almost always had a rock in his hand or in his pocket — and he thought each one was unique and precious.
The soldier was not amused. He didn't like to be wrong — certainly not in front of Jews. He looked at my parents' faces. He looked at Grandma Dora. If any one of them had shown a hint of a smile, he would undoubtedly have shot them all.
No one was smiling.
"Please, help yourself to whatever the government may need," Papa interrupted.
By then, the first soldier was already searching through closets and drawers. He needed no invitation.
It seems so irrelevant now, but then it was heartbreaking for Mamishu to see her prized mink jacket pulled from the hall closet and slung over the soldier's arm. Papa had saved for a year to surprise her with this gift. She felt like one of those American movie stars from Hollywood whenever she wore it — even if it was just for a walk in the neighborhood.
A few long minutes later, as the soldiers gathered up their takings and prepared to leave, the shorter of the two spotted an ornate clock on twisted brass feet sitting on the edge of the hallway pedestal table. A gift her grandparents had given Grandma Dora on the day she became engaged, it had been handed down to Mamishu on her wedding day.
"Oh, shouldn't this be kept behind glass, something so special?" asked the squat soldier, gesturing toward the table. "You should be more careful with your keepsakes." Then he watched my mother to gauge her reaction as he used his hand to nudge the clock toward the edge of the table.
Mamishu held her expression steady. "Yes, thank you. I'll be more careful."
In slow motion, the diminutive man in uniform continued to guide the clock to the table's edge, waiting, waiting for a reaction.
When it was clear the fragile timepiece was about to fall, Mamishu gasped.
It was just enough to turn the soldier's blank expression into a nasty smile. "Oh!" he said as he gave the clock its final push. "My mistake."
The heavy heirloom fell to the floor with a crash. The glass face shattered into small pieces that flew to every corner of the hall. One twisted brass foot broke off. The clock was destroyed.
"You're so clumsy," the taller soldier said with a laugh, clapping his comrade on the back as they nodded toward Mamishu in false politeness.
And then they were gone.
When Mamishu closed the door behind them, Samuel folded his little body in half and, with his head bent to his knees, wailed with the weight of his whole being. He cried and cried and could not stop.
"No, Samuel, no." Mamishu rubbed his back. "It's all right. I'm not scared. Papa isn't scared. The men just needed some of our things to share with the new government. We are happy to help them."
Mamishu was trying hard to stay hopeful, but nights like this made it difficult. And deep in their gut all Jews in Zarki knew what they should expect. It had been laid out in perfect detail just a month earlier — on a day that came to be known as Bloody Monday.CHAPTER 2
The war in Poland had begun on September 1, 1939, when German forces swept across the country in a Blitzkrieg (lightning war) attack. The invasion reached our town the following day, a Saturday. German planes zipped across the sky, dropping bombs that ripped apart our homes. Each family wondered in the minutes of quiet between explosions if the next bomb would hit their house.
Many homes did burn down that day in Zarki, with neighbors trapped inside, hiding in cellars. There was chaos and panic, and it's hard to determine exactly what time the first bomb fell. One survivor wrote in his diary that it was two o'clock in the afternoon and his family considered running to an open field — a place where the Germans might be less likely to waste firepower. Another survivor wrote that the aerial invasion began before lunchtime. And one of my cousins tells me the Sabbath table was just being cleared when the bombs began falling. But every account agrees: September 2 was a day of terror.
It probably sounds strange that Papa and Mamishu — and their entire community — didn't just pack suitcases instantly, throw on warm clothes, and trek into the woods until they reached a safer place. But home is home, and before the invasion Zarki had been a safe haven for Jews in Poland. In some Polish towns, Jews couldn't own land and businesses were highly restricted. In Zarki, though, where more than half the community was Jewish, life was better. Over three thousand Jews prayed daily at local synagogues, celebrated the Sabbath in their homes, and worked as craftsmen, merchants, and entrepreneurs who gained respect, even among some Catholic neighbors. There were some ugly examples of discrimination in Zarki. One market kept a sign in the window that read, "Don't buy from Jews! Support your own people." But Jewish-owned businesses still thrived in the town.
Zarki was not an easy place to leave, yet if anyone had guessed what was coming, there would have been no Jews remaining in Zarki after September 2, 1939. Everyone would have fled, attempting to escape the reach of the Nazis. As it was, though, most Jews of Zarki were hoping that when the bombing stopped and the German forces defeated the small Polish army and took charge, the invaders would peacefully reign over Poland, content to have won new territory for Hitler's empire.
* * *
When the sun came up Sunday, September 3, the day after the aerial attack, Mamishu, Papa, Samuel, and Grandma Dora all climbed up from the cellar. They couldn't believe the house was still standing. My mother assessed the living room with a mixture of relief and guilt. Some windows were cracked from the concussion of the bombs landing nearby, but the walls were all intact.
"Baruch Hashem," Bobeshi said aloud in Hebrew, praising God for their fortune.
Mamishu's face was wet with tears, though. "Those sounds — Israel, I can't get them out of my mind."
Papa didn't have to ask his wife which sounds. He also was haunted by the noises they'd heard in the darkness overnight — not just the explosions but also the voices of families shouting from inside homes that were burning to ashes. No one could save them. Everyone was tucked into cellars, praying for their own survival. The town was under siege. By daylight, Mamishu could see that the Jewish library in the distance had been badly damaged. Everyone in our community was proud of that place. A gift from a Zionist organization, it contained more than six thousand volumes and it served as sort of a cultural center in the Jewish quarter. Shelves were filled with literature from renowned poets and Jewish authors. Men gathered there twice a day to pray and to discuss the teachings of the Torah, the Jewish holy book.
Mamishu said she wanted to go check on her parents, Esther and Mordecai Jonisch, who lived nearby.
"Absolutely not," Papa insisted. He rarely argued with his wife, but now he was firm. "Sophie, do you understand what's happening? The bombing is only the beginning. This is war. The soldiers are coming."
My father was right. That Sunday, soldiers streamed into town from every direction. They arrived in cars, in trucks, and on motorcycles. Nazi troops marched through the streets dressed in black. We later learned they were part of the elite unit of the Nazi guard known as "storm troopers" and their objectives were to terrify and to destroy. Zarki was one of the first towns they invaded. Hours into that first day, it was clear that the Germans didn't plan to simply invade Poland; they intended to utterly dominate it.
Soldiers ripped machines out of factories, shattered glass on storefronts, and shot up homes. They used dynamite to blow up a textile factory on the edge of town, preparing to steal the bricks that tumbled down from the chimney and load them onto a train to send to Germany. They even tore benches out of school classrooms. If they could have ripped clouds out of the sky, pulled apart the fluff, and scattered it over the streets, I think they would have done that, too. Both Jews and Polish gentiles watched helplessly as their property was destroyed. Jews, though, were especially targeted.
* * *
Another sleepless night passed, and on Monday morning every Jewish man in Zarki was ordered to the town center to report for labor shifts. Papa debated hiding in the cellar but then worried that his disappearance could put Mamishu and the family in even more danger. He assured Mamishu he would be fine, threw on a jacket, and rushed to join the others.
Papa wanted Mamishu to stay home while he was gone, but she did not listen. She respected Papa a great deal, but she knew her own mind and always followed it. Later that Monday, the second full day of the ground invasion, my mother left Samuel at home with Bobeshi and rushed silently toward her parents' house.
Leaving the redbrick house on Sosnawa Street, she ducked onto a path nearby that would take her along a more inconspicuous route. She would have to pass the Jewish cemetery, but it would lead right to her parents' backyard. Very superstitious, Mamishu was always careful to walk along the perimeter of the cemetery and never, ever near the buried dead.
Was that crying?
Mamishu heard a desperate sort of sound that tugged at her insides. It was a child sobbing. Then came the sound of a man shouting. It sounded like he was speaking German.
Mamishu hid behind the wide trunk of an old birch tree and listened. The voices were coming from not far away. Mamishu knew she shouldn't look, but she did.
First, she saw a bright pink velvet dress and little black polka -dotted Mary Jane shoes strewn in the dirt. She squinted to see a little farther in the distance and recognized the face of three-year-old Sasha Beritzmann, who was standing next to a soldier.
The little girl was always at synagogue on Saturday mornings, dressed like a baby doll and sitting in her mother's lap. Whenever the congregants recited the Shema, a prayer that requires people to cover their eyes before God, Sasha giggled because she thought the women near her were playing peekaboo. She would laugh so hard that her mami sometimes carried her out of services.
Excerpted from Survivors Club by Michael Bornstein, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat. Copyright © 2017 Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface; It's Time to Talk vii
1 Remember the Cup 3
2 Bloody Monday 12
3 The Roundup 25
4 What Snuck In with the Laundry 35
5 The Judenrat 47
6 Look Forward 52
7 Money Talks 63
8 Predictions from the Underground 68
9 Cousin Ruth 77
10 Last-Chance Decisions 91
11 Trapped 105
12 The Parting Gift 111
13 B-1148 121
14 Punishment at Auschwitz 135
15 News from the Fence 146
16 An Unexpected Departure 155
17 A Lucky Illness 159
18 Visitors for Ruth 167
19 Picture in History 175
20 Home 187
21 Aunt Hilda 199
22 Ghostface 208
23 A Knock at the Door 219
24 A Splash of Yellow In Zarki 229
25 Survivors Club 237
26 American Dream 247
27 At a Crossroads 254
28 All That Remained 262
29 Backyard Encounter 267
30 City of Rubble 271
31 The Dark Side of Munich 279
32 The Lady with the Swastika Necklace 287
33 The Bar Mitzvah Boy 297
Afterword Michael Bornstein 307
A Bornstein Family Who's Who 317
A Survivor's Club Photo Album 321
Notes on Sources 341