Holocaust survivor lets his life speakWritten by Andrea Miller
In 1945, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz and filmed 4-year-old Michael Bornstein being carried out of the concentration camp in the arms of his grandmother. That film would become "a now-famous piece of archival footage from the Holocaust," according to Mr. Borstein's memoir, Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, which he co-wrote with his daughter Debbie Bornstein Holinstat.
A current Friends Academy grandfather, Mr. Bornstein, with his daughter Debbie, and his son, Scott, shared his story with students in Grades 8-12 in the Helen A. Dolan Center Theater. Head of School Paul J. Stellato welcomed Michael at the start of the program.
"Soon after Oct. 7, I began speaking with Scott about his father's story," said Mr. Stellato. "And now, I am thankful that all of the pieces have fallen into place. The story that he and his children will tell today is 70 years in the making."
"This month," began Mr. Bornstein, "I felt even more compelled to talk about my past because I don't want history to repeat itself," he added as he pulled back his sleeve to reveal the tattoo he received at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Born in May of 1940 in Zarki, Poland, Mr. Bornstein was one of seven siblings. His town was one of the first to be invaded by the Nazis. "They took whole families and lined them up," described Debbie. "The Nazi soldiers told families that if they lowered their hands they would be shot. They made it into a game." Zarki was quickly turned into an open ghetto, one of the longest-running ones, with rampant food shortages and "forced contributions." Families attempted to hide money and family jewelry, and the same was true for the Bornstein family.
The Bornsteins survived two "cleansings", as they were moved from one town to another. In the second ghetto, a sympathetic German who was left in charge did his best to keep the families in good health. According to Mr. Bornstein, this act would become the difference between life and death for him, who with his family members, was ultimately transferred to Auschwitz.
"I still remember the smell, which I know now was the smell of burning bodies," recounted Mr. Bornstein. "I remember voices yelling and I was always so hungry." After losing his father and older brother in the gas chambers, 4-year-old Michael was saved by one more "miracle."
"It was January of 1945 and by this time the Nazis were killing indiscriminately," said Debbie. "They didn't even bother to tattoo people. They marched 60,000 Jews into the woods and my father would have been on that march had he not taken ill, and had my grandmother not snuck him into the infirmary at Auschwitz," she said.
Evading the march, Michael and his grandmother were eventually liberated by Soviet soldiers who filmed him as he was carried out in his grandmother's arms. Reunited with his mother and remaining siblings, Michael's family was unwelcome in their hometown and after temporarily relocating to Munich, ultimately moved to the United States, where he spent the remainder of his life.
"I attended Fordham and then the University of Iowa, where I got my degree in Pharmacology and met my wife," said Mr. Bornstein. "I feel extremely lucky to live in the United States," he shared.
In January of 2020, Mr. Bornstein returned to Auschwitz, (with prodding from his daughter) for the 75th Anniversary. He was honored as a keynote speaker and brought with him the only item his family was able to recover from their home in Zarki -- a ceremonial Kiddush cup, which became the cornerstone of family weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Mr. Bornstein also shared his cup with one of the only world leaders to attend that anniversary event -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
"I am counting on your generation to end this cycle of hatred," urged Mr. Bornstein. "What happened in Israel last month was pure hate. There has been an increase in hate across this world, and not just for Jewish people, but for Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, and the LGBTQ minority."
Asked by an Upper School student what he is most fearful of since Oct. 7, Mr. Bornstein responded immediately. "Before the war with Hitler, we saw a lot of comments and jokes about Jews. Those gradually turned into Hitler and Nazism. The same thing is going on now. The Holocaust didn't start with burning bodies," he stated. "Learn facts before you judge," reminded Mr. Bornstein. "And also remember to be kind. Jokes against minorities are never funny. If you see hate against anyone, you must stand up and always use your voice."
Photos by Alvin Caal/Friends Academy