MINNETONKA — An Auschwitz survivor and his daughter spoke May 15 at Minnetonka High School, and said it is more important than ever to share stories from the Holocaust, in light of recent acts of anti-Semitism and prejudice.
Survivor Michael Bornstein was born in an open ghetto in Zarki, Poland, on May 2, 1940. At the age of 4, he and his family were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Bornstein survived Auschwitz through the moxie of his family and pure luck, said daughter, Debbie Holinstat. The camp was the largest German Nazi concentration camp, where more than 1.1 million men, women and children were killed during World War II.
When Bornstein started speaking to the crowd gathered at the high school Wednesday evening, he rolled back the left sleeve of his gray jacket. There on his upper forearm was the faded tattoo that had been assigned to him when he entered the camp.
“I spent most of my life trying to avoid talking about the Holocaust,” he said. “I tried to hide the tattoo on my arm, and whenever I could, I even thought about having it removed. But now I’m glad that I didn’t.
“I realize it’s my job to talk about the Holocaust, because there aren’t that many survivors that are left and I can’t stay silent anymore. I was prisoner B1148.”
Together, father and daughter spent two years researching and writing to publish his story. The book is titled “Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz.”
On the front cover of the book is a common image from the liberation of Auschwitz. Bornstein, who is in the center of the photograph, draws back the sleeve of his left arm, as he did at Minnetonka High School, to show the tattoo.
The photograph generated two turning points for Bornstein. Several years back, he and Holinstat clicked on a thumbnail of the photo on a computer. It led them to a Holocaust denial website.
“That’s been fuel for my father, that if the Holocaust deniers are speaking, he needs to speak louder,” Holinstat said.
They began writing the book together after seeing the website.
Another turning point was when the book was published. Two other girls in the same photo reached out to Bornstein; it turned out they all lived within miles of each other in New Jersey. They reunited for the first time in 72 years in 2017.
White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. have surged in number in recent years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“It’s not comfortable for me to stand here and talk about any of this,” Bornstein said. “But I won’t stop talking … there’s been a surge in hate crimes against Jewish people, black people, Muslim people, Hispanic people and LGBT minorities. It has to stop.
“It means so much to me that you care,” he said. “I ask that you remember my story and remember the six million people who were killed in the Holocaust. Together, let’s make sure history is never forgotten and never repeated.”
Holinstat said incidents of anti-Semitism — whether they were shootings in synagogues earlier this year, or smaller events that were framed as school kid jokes — should be seen with gravity.
One of the incidents she referenced was back in January, when two Minnetonka High School students were photographed posing with Nazi salutes. They held a sign reading, “Sweethearts would be a Hit(ler) with you, and I could Nazi myself going with anyone else. Be Mein? Yes, Nein.”
The photo captured attention nationwide. An executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council said it showed anti-Semitism and a need to educate more about the Holocaust. Minnetonka High School Principal Jeff Erickson and Superintendent Dennis Peterson condemned the post and said it caused pain to the Twin Cities Jewish community. Erickson later said the two students apologized for their actions.
“Education is key,” Bornstein said. “Just look forward to the future.”
This too shall pass
A question and answer period followed the talk. Hopkins High School student Lyim Baumgardt wore a rainbow kippah as they reached for the microphone. They asked Holinstat and Bornstein about perseverance.
“I’m Jewish and I’m a part of this LGBT Jewish group,” they said. “I was wondering if you had any suggestions for how to be brave and how to process seeing this resurgence of anti-Semitism.”
Holinstat said it is important to have difficult conversations with people who may not be familiar with Judaism or the LGBTQ community; having a broad circle of people in your life helps remind others of sensitivity.
“There’s unfortunately no easy answer,” Holinstat said. “My dad processes it just like you and I do every day, and it’s hard but he never gets down for long because he always tries to remember gam zeh yaʻavor.”
The saying means “This too shall pass” in Hebrew.