Earlier this week, Survivors Club coauthor Debbie Bornstein Holinstat wrote about discovering the power of Jewish books in Ottumwa, Iowa. Debbie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
If my father had his way, my last name would never have been Bornstein” It would have been Bourne or maybe Borns, he tells me, something far less obviously Jewish. Fortunately, like in all good Jewish marriages, my mom has final veto power. My surname didn’t change until the day I walked down the aisle and said, “I do.”
You might think it’s crazythat a man who survived the Auschwitz death camp as a four-year-old prisoner of war would decide as an adult in the safety of America, to hide his religion. Far from life in the Polish ghetto where he was born, my father insisted that my brother turn his soccer jersey inside-out for all “travel” games so that his telltale Jewish name did not draw attention. It was easy for my siblings and me to judge. “Dad! You’re absurd! No one cares if we’re Jewish! Be proud!”
I don’t want you to think my father isn’t proud of his religion. He values Judaism with his entire heart and finds immense comfort in lighting the Hanukkah candles or leading the Passover seder. But it has taken me 42 years and the process of writing a book alongside my father to really understand why he worried about the things he did and protected us with such ferocity.
To be honest, I’m embarrassed. I didn’t know half of what my father endured until we sat down to co-write Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz. Some of it, even he didn’t know. But it was all there to be found — in relatives’ audiotaped interviews, in exhumed museum documents, and in the questions the family never asked. I didn’t need to write a book to learn my father’s history and sometimes, I’m ashamed that that is what it took.
Had I known the ruthless bullying and unspeakable assault my father endured in Germany after the war, I wouldn’t have resented his helicopter parenting. If I knew he shared one helping of cold, smelly soup each day, among dozens of starving children who lapped from a bowl like kittens, I wouldn’t have laughed at his need to clear every last morsel off a restaurant plate. I know I would never have pointed an accusing finger when he stockpiled free hotel-size shampoo bottles in a cabinet, just in case supplies ran low.
Despite the five-character tattoo inked on his forearm, my dad was the stereotypical hardworking, homework-helping, soccer-coaching father to four happy kids in suburban Indianapolis. We never thought less of him for his Holocaust-inspired idiosyncrasies. But I’m sure we would have understood him more had we pushed to hear his story sooner rather than accepting “I really don’t like to talk about it” as an answer.
My siblings and I have learned a lot during the book writing process. We learned that our grandfather, my father’s father, bribed a Nazi guard (takes chutzpah, right?!) to make living conditions more bearable in the ghetto where he served as Judenrat president. We learned that a precisely-timed illness helped my father avoid the Death March at Auschwitz. We learned that of the 3,400 Jews who lived in my dad’s hometown of Zarki before the war, only about 27 returned home. Most of those survivors were my relatives.
Yet maybe the most important lesson we learned along the way is that “I don’t want to talk about it,” isn’t always a final answer. Sometimes, it’s worth asking again. I am hardly the only child of a survivor walking around today, and the Holocaust is just one of many history lessons that can’t be forgotten. If I could have a do-over, I would have dug for the true story of my father’s survival years ago. I didn’t need to write a book, and neither does anyone else. If you want your family’s history to be remembered, just ask. Ask again.
It turns out my father is glad we did. Encouraged by new findings at a museum and new fears about Holocaust deniers, at the age of 76 he is speaking openly at schools, synagogues, churches, and charity functions. He is touring the country, traveling to D.C., Illinois, Minnesota, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Indianapolis, and Iowa to speak about Survivors Club, and standing up at a time when antisemitism is on the rise and discrimination seems newly tolerated. With the name “Bornstein” printed across the spine of our book, he is adding his story to the record. And with a new understanding of where he’s been and how far he’s come, I stand with my siblings and my mother in saying, there is closure, relief, and pride in the journey.
Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is Survivor’s Club co-author Michael Holinstat’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.