Iowa Alumni Magazine | March 2017 | Features

From Auschwitz To Iowa City

By Kathryn Howe
For 70 years, Michael Bornstein remained silent about his faded tattoo and the seven months he spent inside the concentration camp. The University of Iowa graduate finally shares his story.
Bolded italics text excerpted directly from Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), March 7, 2017.

September 4, 1939. Bloody Monday.

Two days after Nazis invaded Zarki, Poland, Sophie Jonisch Bornstein stole away from the red-brick house on Sosnawa Street to check on her parents. Nearing the Jewish cemetery, she heard a child's cries and the sound of a man shouting in German. She looked down to see a pink velvet dress and black Mary Janes in the dirt. In the distance, she recognized a 3-year-old from synagogue next to a soldier. The little girl Sophie was used to seeing dressed impeccably and giggling during services was cold and naked. Soldiers ordered her parents to shed their clothes as well. One threw a shovel at her father.

PHOTO: George Baier IV

The soldier commanded Mr. Beritzmann to hug his family. BAM! BAM! BAM! The three shots were each perfectly placed. Entwined together in an eternal embrace, the family fell backward into the big grave Mr. Beritzmann had just dug.

PHOTO: George Baier IV

Sophie placed a hand on her womb, where her second son grew blissfully unaware of this and similar atrocities taking place across Poland. The Nazis slaughtered 1,000 innocent Jews on their first full day of occupation, 100 in Zarki alone. They ordered men, women, and children to line against brick walls with their hands up. If their hands lowered in fatigue, they were shot.

On May 2, 1940—almost eight months after Sophie witnessed an innocent family's murder on Bloody Monday—Michael Bornstein was born into the horrific reality of a world war that would steal the lives of more than six million Jews. Hundreds of thousands of children died. That he was not one of them is a testament to miracles.

One of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, Michael was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp when he was only 4. He arrived by train on a hot July afternoon with his mother; his father, Israel; 8-year-old brother, Samuel; and grandmother, Dora. Of the 2,819 inmates freed by the Russian Army on Jan. 27, 1945, only 52 were under the age of 8.

Throughout much of his life, Michael admits he didn't talk about his experiences because there wasn't much he could recall. He struggled with the difference between true memory and the imagined, and he didn't want to speak anything less than the absolute truth. Plus, he was raised with Sophie's eternal optimism and a family motto that kept him pressing forward:

Gam ze ya'avor.

Hebrew for: "This too shall pass."

Michael's four children—including third-youngest, Debbie—always knew their dad was a Holocaust survivor. They wondered about the tattoo on his arm, but asking about it didn't produce many answers. One central question nagged at their curiosities, though: In a time and place where children were marched straight to their deaths, how did he survive? The answer inspired Michael's decision to find out more about his past, setting in motion the new memoir Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, co-written by Debbie.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Yad Vashem, Photo archive, Jerusalem

"My father should have been killed a million times over," says Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, now an accomplished journalist and television producer for MSNBC. "He should not have lived more than two weeks, like the average child in Auschwitz. He should not have survived in hiding there. But then, he should never have survived the Death March."

PHOTO: Courtesy Michael Bornstein

The book is not just Michael's unlikely story of survival—a story that includes the later pursuit of a graduate degree in pharmacy at the University of Iowa. It's the story of his entire Polish family. His mother, Sophie Jonisch Bornstein, had six brothers and sisters. She went to Auschwitz, another went to Buchenwald, some went into hiding, another made a daring wartime escape. And yet, one by one, they all came home. Before the Holocaust, 3,400 Jews lived and worked in Zarki. Less than 30 returned—and almost all of them were named Jonisch or Bornstein.

"When I was younger, I didn't show the tattoo much. I was ashamed of it," says Michael, 66PhD, of the weathered B-1148 on his left forearm. "When I was older, I understood that it's important not to forget."

On the Survivors Club book jacket is an image of a small, blond-haired boy, swallowed by an oversized striped uniform. Alongside other children, he rolls up his sleeve to show the Russian soldiers his tattoo. The image is a still taken from archival video footage the Soviets filmed to document the first days of liberation at Auschwitz, January 1945. Michael would later be shocked to recognize himself in those frames. He first stumbled across the footage in the mid-1980s while watching a movie with friends called The Chosen, which features the video. The movie inspired his family to search for more related images. For years to come he'd spot himself in books and on museum walls and in newsreels.

Still, he felt unsure about calling attention to himself as that little boy. So much remained a mystery, and he preferred to focus on the future. Then he stumbled across his picture on a Holocaust denier's website. The suggestion was, "Look—children didn't die at Auschwitz. Here they are, healthy as can be." Michael's blood boiled, and he felt an overwhelming obligation to speak out. "You realize you can't stay silent," he says. "We are dying off with our stories—there are few of us left."

PHOTO: United States Holocaust memorial museum, courtesy yad vashem Jewish men and boys at work in the Zarki ghetto.

The month after the September 1939 Nazi occupation of Poland, Michael's father, Israel Bornstein, flew about the house stuffing family treasures into a burlap sack. Nazis marched door-to-door demanding that Jews make "contributions" to the government. They wanted money, jewelry, and other valuables. Israel hoped to preserve what he could and collected bank notes, coins, a string of pearls, and one silver cup.

PHOTO: Courtesy Michael Bornstein Israel Bornstein, Michael's father.

He walked to the backyard and plunged his hands into the earth. "Gam ze ya'avor," he thought, "We have a special arrival to look forward to in the spring."

In Nazi-occupied Poland, Zarki was an open ghetto where able bodied Jews endured long work shifts alongside uncertainty and fear. They were grateful that Zarki was open and they could go home to their beds at night, yet they wondered when that small luxury would end.

Israel Bornstein became president of Zarki's Judenrat, a formal council of Jewish leaders. Nazis required that every ghetto have a council to help enforce rules and orders. Some viewed Israel with suspicion, but he leveraged his position to help Jews escape and keep more families together— even if that meant bribing influential German soldiers. He carried on with this plan for as long as possible until Oct. 6, 1942, when orders came to empty the ghetto. Trains were on the way to "resettle" Jews to labor and extermination camps and make Zarki "Judenrein." Clean of Jews.

Hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children gathered nervously in Zarki's Jewish square, one suitcase apiece in hand. At the train station, healthy, active young parents were separated from their children and boarded trains for work camps, where they could pack ammunitions, make weapons and tools, or build roads for the German government.

Young children and senior citizens were chosen for a separate train. They would go to Treblinka, the death camp. As the selection took place, children clung to mothers' skirts, begging to stay with them. Fathers wept and gave hugs that must have carried the weight of a thousand bedtimes. Mothers kissed every corner of babies' faces—chins, temples, and cheeks—breathing in the smell of sweet, sticky skin and hoping to always remember the scent.

Where hope had once been, Israel now felt only anguish. He managed to negotiate for more workers to stay behind and clean up the town, including his family. The Bornsteins eventually were transferred to an ammunitions factory in Pionki, where Israel and Sophie labored and tried to keep up the boys' schooling. By July 1944, however, that factory was closed and all Jews—including the Bornsteins—were ordered to Auschwitz.

I can't swallow, Papa. Are we almost there?

I was desperately thirsty on the train ride to Auschwitz. The journey was something like three hundred kilometers from Pionki. We had been traveling for at least a day. I couldn't wait for the train to finally stop. I was soaked with sweat and urine. There was no bathroom on board, so there was no other way.

Samuel was queasy from the train's constant rocking rhythm, the smells, and the awkward position he was forced into on the overstuffed freight car—and he finally gave in to tears.

Finally the train jerked to a stop. Mamishu squeezed my hand as the door rattled open. Instantly we heard men barking commands in German. "Alle raus!" Everybody out!

The glaring sun hurt our eyes and a terrible smell attacked our noses. Suddenly, we could only think of that wretched smell, far more offensive than anything we'd endured onboard the train.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Yad Vashem, Photo archive, Jerusalem The selection of Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944. New arrivals were sent to work or to their deaths. In the lower right, a mother and her baby walk to the gas chamber. This photo is included in "The Auschwitz Album," the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to mass murder at the death camp. The album is at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel.

Smoke billowed from the chimneys towering above the camp, blowing a sinister haze day and night. Although Michael can't directly recall many details, he'll never forget that smell.

"The Nazis, after they killed people by gassing them, they put them into ovens. And, you know, bodies burning ... the smell of the ovens is something that I believe I remember," says Michael. "You don't kill a million people overnight. It hangs in the air."

Michael's brother, Samuel, selected a rock from the ground and placed it inside a pocket on his mother's skirt. Then, the Bornsteins entered a camp with an infamous sign that read:

ARBEIT MACHT FREI.

"Work makes you free."

Right inside the gate was Block 24, where Jews lined up for public executions each day. In the twisted plotline of Auschwitz, this was considered a preferable fate in comparison to Blocks 10 and 11, where Nazis like Josef Mengele carried out sadistic medical experiments and tortured and punished prisoners.

Like all other families at the camps, the Bornsteins were immediately ripped apart. Israel and Samuel were assigned to the men's side of the fence. Sophie, Dora, and young Michael went to the women's and children's barracks. Despite having some answers, Michael still can't say with certainty why he wasn't sent directly to the gas chamber to choke on Zyklon B. Perhaps it was that the Nazis were growing increasingly nervous about the Allied approach and their system was more haphazard than usual. Some evidence has suggested the ovens were down that day.

At the Auschwitz entrance, the Bornstein family said hasty goodbyes. They didn't dare consider that it would be their last time together.

In his book, Michael describes that horrible feeling of going somewhere and realizing you've left something important behind. That was what the first hour at Auschwitz felt like. Eyeglasses, suitcases, children—all gone from grasp. All it took was 60 minutes to steal everything from a human being, even a name. Michael later discovered he wasn't the first to be branded with the number 1148. Once the Nazis reached 20,000, the numbers were recycled with a new prefix.

Smoke billowed from the chimneys towering above the camp, blowing a sinister haze day and night. Although Michael can't directly recall many details, he'll never forget that smell.

After he was tattooed and his blond curls cut, Michael was separated from his mother and grandmother to sleep in a different barracks. The living conditions were terrible. Food was scarce, every corner caked in filth. "If you got some cold soup, it was so smelly you had to close your nose and eat it just to survive," Michael says. A thin layer of straw served as a mattress, and prisoners slept three to a bunk.

Sophie eventually located Michael. She would sneak away to check on him, bringing her youngest child her small allotment of bread. She suffered permanent scars to her head from the beatings she took to do this. But a mother has to protect her child, and what hurt most was knowing she could do nothing for Samuel other than hope he and Israel were safe.

One day, Sophie decided to sneak Michael to her barracks so she could better watch over him. There, he'd hide under the straw or behind his grandmother's skirt or whatever corner he could find when he thought the Nazis were coming. That's another indelible memory: the ominous sound of their boots, warning him to disappear.

Children can be very quiet when they are afraid.

Of the hundreds of thousands of children who had been delivered by train to Auschwitz, only 52 under the age of eight survived. They were the world's best hiders. I was one of them.

Tragic news eventually came from the other side of the fence. Israel and Samuel had been sent to the gas chambers. Sophie crumpled to the ground and thought of the rock in the pocket of the dress she had to relinquish on arrival.

Not long after, Sophie left Auschwitz for a labor camp in Austria. All Michael had left was Grandma Dora and his mother's promise that she would see him again.

PHOTO: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park Dora Bornstein carries her grandson Michael (center) out of Auschwitz on Liberation Day in 1945.

Weeks passed and rumors increased that the Soviet Army was closing in. Fearful, the Nazis stepped up exterminations at the death camps and destroyed evidence that proved the extent of their evil. Finally, they decided to clear the camp.

In January 1945, Nazis forced 60,000 prisoners on a Death March to empty Auschwitz in advance of the Allied forces. The evacuation route took already weak and frail Jews across hundreds of miles during the coldest European winter of the 20th century.

Why Michael and Dora weren't on that Death March was a mystery until the discovery of a document at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The papers tied to Michael's months at Auschwitz show he was in the infirmary with dystrophy at the time of the march. On Jan. 17, 1945, he awoke burning hot with fever. With the camp in disarray and no guards outside the barracks, Dora took Michael to the infirmary where he was quarantined with Dora as his caretaker.

"The timing of a particular illness saved my dad's life at Auschwitz," Debbie says. "It was a clear miracle that he missed the march because he would have most certainly died."

Ten days later, on Jan. 27, the Russians arrived to liberate the camp and the remaining prisoners like Michael who were ill or dying. He remembers that they treated them like humans, offering real pillows and real food, even chocolates and cookies.

We showed them our tattoos to identify ourselves, but they pushed our arms aside and asked for our names. We weren't prisoners anymore—we were survivors. We weren't numbers anymore—we were people.

I am Michael, I told the soldiers.

Other images found show Michael in Dora's arms as she walked him out of Auschwitz. Despite the lightness of freedom, Michael and his grandmother felt a heavy burden. They were told a fire broke out at Sophie's Austrian work camp and that everyone perished. Michael kept hoping his mother would find him as she'd done before. Like she promised.

She said the word America the way a child says the word candy. She told me America was the most wonderful and welcoming place you can imagine.

Camps across Europe were liberated one by one. Dora and Michael returned to the red-brick house in Zarki to find it occupied by strangers. Post-war anti-Semitism ran high in towns and villages, so they retreated to a chicken coop on the outskirts of Zarki. They'd go into town to visit relatives who were slowly coming home, always careful to cross the street when passing the house of the family who perished in the graveyard. Dora didn't like being near that memory.

A few months later, during a walk into town, Michael spotted a woman who resembled his mother so closely that he stopped in his tracks. Miraculously, it was her and he ran into her arms. Sophie soon decided that there was nothing left for her and her son in Zarki; they didn't even have their home. She decided they would apply for visas to America. She would learn to be a hat maker. Michael would get an education.

She said the word America the way a child says the word candy. She told me America was the most wonderful and welcoming place you can imagine.

But before leaving Zarki, there was one thing left to do. Once again, Sophie stole away in the night, this time creeping to the backyard of her own house. She tried to remember how many steps Israel took before burying their family treasures and began to dig until she found what she came for. She opened the burlap sack, and to her dismay, the jewels and banknotes and other valuables were gone—likely stolen by Nazi vandals. It wasn't completely empty, though. From the bottom, she pulled the silver Kiddush cup the family used for toasts at Shabbat and other important occasions. The cup to this day is a treasure for the Bornstein family and is used in prayers, weddings, and bat/bar mitzvahs.

The most priceless and irreplaceable item of them all had not been stolen, a symbol of unwavering faith, tenacity, persistence, and hope.

PHOTO: George Baier IV The watch Michael Bornstein's mother, Sophie, gave him in 1958. The Kiddush cup, a precious family heirloom.

On May 7, 1945, Germany signed an unconditional surrender. World War II was over. Sophie and Michael would spend the next six years waiting on their visas to the United States. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society first assigned them to a displaced persons camp in Munich and later to a one-room apartment in the city. Dora decided to live the remainder of her days with relatives in Poland.

The wait was long, and the daily mail delivery brought anticipation. Some nights, faint reminders haunted Michael in his sleep—nightmares about Nazis melting fat from dead Jews into bars of soap. Finally, a parcel came with documents and tickets to the U.S. It was one of the happiest days of his life.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Michael Bornstein Bornstein in the pharmacy lab at the University of Iowa.

After an excruciating journey aboard the General M.B. Stewart, a military transport ship, Michael and his mother arrived in New York City in 1951. Aid organizations set them up in a small apartment, and Michael enrolled in P.S. 6 at 82nd and Madison Avenue. He often felt lonely, like the outsider with the weird tattoo and little English. But then he got a job with pharmacist Victor Oliver at Feldman's Drugstore. He delivered packages, washed floors, scooped ice cream, and listened to Victor discuss terms like pharmacodynamics and molecular diagnostics. Michael looked up to him as a father figure who was "stern but made me do the right things" and who instilled in him an interest in science and chemistry.

Victor came to Michael's bar mitzvah in 1953. To recognize her son's passing into adulthood, Sophie later gave her son a watch inscribed with the Gimmel and Zion, the Hebrew letters symbolizing gam ze ya'avor. She also passed on to her son many crucial values, emphasizing the one she felt most important: Education makes you free. That can never be taken away.

Michael went on to study pharmacy at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he earned his undergraduate degree. When he decided to continue his education, Michael applied to three Ph.D. pharmacy programs: Columbia, the University of Maryland, and the University of Iowa. Iowa gave him the best scholarship. More than that, it gave him his second chance at life.

PHOTO: George Baier IV Michael and Judy Cohan Bornstein will celebrate 50 years of marriage on July 9.

Michael's roommate at the UI was Edward Freiter, 68PhD, a student of German heritage who occasionally visited Iowa Hillel because he liked Jewish food. At high-holiday services in 1965, Ed met Judith Cohan, 67BA, an undergraduate studying special education at the College of Education. "You need to meet my roommate," he said.

Michael and Judy went on a blind date at the Hamburg Inn. "Here was this Ph.D. student, an older man, who was very interested in what I was doing and who loved children," Judy says. "He was family-oriented and willing to go to movies, plays, and concerts I liked. We had lots of things in common that way."

Judy noticed the numbers on his arm but knew he was embarrassed. She knew he was the reason her parents would tell her to "finish everything on your plate because children are starving in Europe." If she asked an occasional question, he was usually vague and short with his answers. He preferred not to dwell in darkness. To this day, Judy says, he doesn't like sad movies.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Michael Bornstein The whole Bornstein clan today.

Michael and Judy married in Chicago on July 9, 1967. Ed was best man. They have four children—Lori, Scott, Debbie, and Lisa—and 11 grandchildren. Says Freiter: "The remarkable thing about Michael is you'd never suspect what he'd been through. He was able to put all that horror behind him. By the time I met him, he was this well-adjusted, goodspirited adult."

For more than 40 years, Michael enjoyed a long and successful career in pharmaceutical research and development, including positions as a research scientist at Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson. After several years in the Midwest, the Bornsteins moved to New Jersey, where they've lived since 1988.

In 2001, Michael made an emotional return to Auschwitz. He and Judy stood by the ovens where Israel and Samuel had been killed and whispered a Kaddish blessing. He felt a sense of closure, and has since felt that again at two recent bat mitzvahs for his granddaughters. One memorialized Samuel by placing a prayer shawl on an empty chair. Another participated in a special ceremony during a summer trip to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. In preparation for her bat mitzvah, she was "twinned" with a child who never lived to celebrate this rite of passage. She chose Samuel.

What color was Samuel's hair? Michael wishes he could remember. It's difficult to have so few memories of his brother and father—but he takes comfort in what he's learned, as well as the stories his mother shared. Stories about Samuel's penchant for rocks and Israel's selfless acts of heroism. Both Israel and Sophie did all they could to save their children.

"I want my own kids to understand what my dad has taught me and what his family taught him," says Debbie. "And that is, no matter how hard things get, there's always another day."

This too shall pass.

From one who survived the unimaginable, Michael Bornstein promises that light can return to even the darkest day with enough faith, resilience, and respect for differences.
"My hope for our world is peace," he says.
To that he lifts one precious silver cup.