Survivors Club Talk and Book Signing
Valley High School Staplin Performing Arts Center, West Des Moines (3650 Woodland Ave) — Sunday, Sept. 15 at 2 p.m.
Survivors Club Talk and Book Signing
Ames Middle School (3915 Mortensen Rd, Ames) — Monday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.
The co-authors of the Holocaust memoir Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz will be in West Des Moines and Ames for two presentations hosted by the Iowa Jewish Historical Society (IJHS) on Sept. 15 and 16.
During World War Two, the Auschwitz complex in Nazi-occupied Poland was the site of many of the Third Reich’s most shocking crimes against humanity. Comprised of three camps, including an extermination center as part of the regime’s plans for the “Final Solution,” over 1.1 million people died there. Nearly 1 million of those who died were Jewish.
The extermination camp at Auschwitz, “the biggest in all history” according to German journalist Bernd Naumann (who reported on the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, 1963-1965), has become the symbol of the Holocaust. (As quoted in The Holocaust Years: Society on Trial).
The prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated by the Red Army of the Soviet Union on January 27, 1945. Over 7,000 prisoners were freed from captivity. One of the youngest to emerge was four-year-old Michael Bornstein.
After the liberation of the camp, Bornstein was eventually reunited with his mother, who had been deported to an Austrian labor camp during the war. They immigrated to New York City in 1951. Bornstein went on to graduate Fordham University in New York and earn a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Pharmaceutics and Analytical Chemistry. He worked as a researcher and scientist for over forty years before retiring.
“I consider Iowa my second home,” Bornstein said in an email to Little Village.
Bornstein resides in New York and New Jersey with his wife. He is the father of four children and grandfather of 11 grandchildren. Together with his third child, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, a journalist with NBC and MSNBC, he researched and co-authored the 2017 memoir Survivors Club.
Photographs of Bornstein being liberated by Soviet soldiers at Auschwitz have adorned museum walls and book covers and have been featured in numerous films on the subject. After more than 70 years, he finally decided to share his story with the world.
“For a very long time, I really didn’t want to talk,” Bornstein said. “I thought it was just easier to focus on my happy family and my wonderful life here in America today. Debbie and my other children had been pressing me for a long time to formally tell them my story so it could be written down. I resisted.”
“Then one day, Debbie and I found my picture from liberation at Auschwitz on a Holocaust deniers’ website. They were using my image to suggest the Holocaust wasn’t so bad — and that Jews lied about children being murdered at Auschwitz. That infuriated me. I realized, it was time to talk. Time to tell my story.”
Bornstein Holinstat spent several years researching her father’s history and interviewing him, as well as fellow survivors from his hometown of Zarki, Poland and family members.
“I found incredible documentation at a Jewish historical society in Poland, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and at the Yad Vashem Memorial Center in Israel,” Bonstein Holinstat said in an email to Little Village.
“Fortunately, the writing process came easier. I write for television news so I’m used to working fast. Once I had a firm grasp on the research, the story just fell onto the pages — along with a lot of tears. This was a labor of love.”
The book is described by the publisher as “the unforgettable story of how a father’s courageous wit, a mother’s fierce love and one perfectly timed illness saved his life … this is not just Michael’s story, but the story of a family that dodged and deceived death time and again with incredible softness.” The book has received acclaim from readers and reviewers alike and became a New York Times bestseller.
Bornstein and Bornstein Holinstat will be appearing at Valley High School Staplin Performing Arts Center in West Des Moines at 2 p.m. on Sept. 15, with the doors opening at 1:15 p.m. They will also be at Ames Middle School on Sept. 16 at 7 p.m., with doors at 6:15 pm.
Each presentation will be followed with a book signing with the authors. Both events are free and open to the public on a “first come, first seated” basis.
“This is an amazing opportunity to learn about the Holocaust first hand,” IJHS director Sandi Yoder said in an email to Little Village. “Michael’s connection to Iowa brings his story ‘home’ to Iowa and connects Iowa to events that are still shaping our world today.”
Since the book’s publication, Bornstein and his daughter have visited numerous venues across the country (including schools, synagogues and business institutions) to share Bornstein’s experiences.
Recalling their visit to the University of Iowa in 2017, Bornstein Holinstat said, “It was a truly special and emotional visit, and we couldn’t believe the response from the community. People lined up to squeeze into a 1,000+ capacity room. The response was a tremendous comfort for my dad and gave him so much validation for speaking out.”
Last year, they attended several speaking engagements in Cedar Rapids and Mt. Vernon. They typically visit middle and high schools to share the valuable lessons of Bornstein’s family history in the context of a historical tragedy for new generations.
Bornstein Holinstat said it is overwhelming to see middle school and high school students moved to tears by her father’s story.
“They always enter their gymnasiums or school theaters chatty and busy, like typical teens. But when my dad starts talking about what he witnessed and what he remembers from Auschwitz, and I share the miraculous details behind his survival — we see teenage boys cry and even teachers wipe their eyes. The way students connect with my dad and with his story is remarkable. It never ceases to move me, the way his story of tragedy and optimism impacts people.”
Despite decades of evidence uncovered to educate future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust and what caused it, despite efforts to honor survivors and the legacies of those who perished, a stunning number of people know little to nothing about what transpired.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) commissioned New York-based research firm Schoen Consulting to conduct a “comprehensive national study of Holocaust knowledge and awareness in the United States.”
“The Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study” found “critical gaps both in awareness of basic facts as well as detailed knowledge of the Holocaust” and that “a significant majority of American adults believe that fewer people care about the Holocaust today than they used to, and more than half of Americans believe that the Holocaust could happen again.”
The study found 11 percent of US adults and 22 percent of Millenials “haven’t heard of or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust.” Additionally, two-thirds of Millenials “cannot identify what Auschwitz was.”
“It scares me to think that just two generations later, a majority of Millenials don’t even know what Auschwitz was,” Bornstein said. “It concerns me to see the rise in hate crimes and recent white nationalist activity. I hope that people never forget the past, and I hope they remember to be kind and tolerant of each other’s differences.”
In the United States, hate crimes are on the rise, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Anti-Semitism is also on the rise, based on recent findings from the American Defamation League.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) at California State University, San Bernardino, found that “Hate crimes rose 9 percent in major US cities in 2018, for a fifth consecutive increase, to decade highs, as cities with increases outnumbered those with declines two to one.”
“As the daughter of a survivor, I feel a huge weight on my shoulders to make sure that stories like my dad’s are remembered,” Bornstein Holinstat said.
“His father was killed, his brother was killed. Six million innocent Jewish people were killed simply because of their religion. If we forget, history is bound to repeat. We can never let intolerance lead the way ever again. I hope children hear my dad’s story and remember to treat each other kindly, honor each other’s differences. I’m the daughter of a survivor, but I’m also the mother of three kids. I hope the past informs their generation, so the world is a happier, more tolerant place.”