The ProsenPeople

The Father I Always Knew, the Survivor I Finally Know Better

Thursday, March 30, 2017 | Permalink

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 the third of Michael Holinstat’s four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she works with her father to arrange school visits and help research and write his memoir.

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Discovering the Power of Jewish Books in Ottumwa, Iowa

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Permalink

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the co-author of Survivors Club, an account of her father’s early childhood at Auschwitz. Debbie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


You know you’ve moved to a town where you’re in the minority when even the handful of Jewish people you meet are surprised you’re Jewish—after you’ve introduced yourself with the last name Bornstein. In Ottumwa, Iowa, there aren’t even enough Jews for anyone to recognize patterns in last names. I lived in that small Iowa hamlet for one year of my life, reporting for the local ABC affiliate; my first job out of college. I was there to hone my journalism chops, but I ended up learning just as much about Judaism and the need for connection as I did about information gathering and linear edits.

The biggest lesson came on Yom Kippur, in a moment that left me horrified and saddened, but it also woke me up.

A soft-voiced, aged Rabbi welcomed about ten congregants and me. I had hoped to return home for the holiday but my work schedule didn’t jive with the flight schedule so here I was, entering Ottumwa’s modest synagogue for the first time. “We see you on TV every morning! You’re Jewish? Really?” I signed off every news report with my name, first and last. I was floored no one guessed that a “Debbie Bornstein” was Jewish. The group was mostly seniors, their children all grown, and I was touched that they invited me to a break-fast dinner at one congregant’s home later that evening.

The morning service was longer than I’m accustomed to, but lovely. When it ended everyone filed out to their cars in the desolate parking lot. I noticed that one woman stayed back. She was sitting alone in a bench and seemed to be settling in with a book. “Do you need a ride?” I asked. She told me she stayed until mincha, the afternoon service. “That’s silly!” I said. “I’ll bring you home and pick you back up for mincha. There’s no reason to sit here all day.”

The woman, whose name I can’t remember but whose story I’ll never forget, told me that every year, on the High Holidays, her husband drops her off at the synagogue very early. Then he picks her up after sundown. He didn’t want anyone to know that she was Jewish. It embarrassed him. Even this woman’s own children didn’t know she was Jewish—or that they are Jewish, too.

I thought about opening my mouth. I thought about telling her to march proudly out of the synagogue in broad daylight, to tell her husband she’s never going to hide her religion, to call her kids and tell them they are among God’s “Chosen People”. Oh, I had plenty of thoughts running through my meddlesome mind. But I didn’t say a word. My face might have spoken for me, but my lips were zipped. At the age of 22, I didn’t feel it was my place to interfere in a person’s private family dynamic. I just sat with her a while instead. After some time, it was clear she was enjoying her book and her silence so I shuffled home, stomach growling, mind swirling.

I’d like to tell you that the woman I left behind at synagogue that fall of 1996 was reading Midrash or Talmudic analysis or even Judaism for Dummies. I think it might have been a Danielle Steele novel. My takeaway remains the same though. There are people living right here in this diverse country who still have obstacles connecting to Jewish life. Few things can change that in a town where there are more eggs in a carton, than there are Jews at High Holiday services.

But Jewish books can fix that. If someone never has the opportunity to learn how to prepare a proper Passover Seder, she can learn about it in books. If an elderly man fears that no one in his community will know to arrange shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, when he passes, he can learn more about the significance of shiva and share it with friends—through books. Jewish philosophy on life and love, parenting and passing are all available these days with a swipe of a button on mobile phones or a quick stop at the bookstore, and if someone has never had the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of the Holocaust from a living survivor, they can still read their stories.

I am immensely proud to know that someone in Ottumwa, Iowa, or a town like it, may now be able to pick up Survivors Club andlearn about the atrocities of Auschwitz from my dad’s story, and about the faith that endured from Auschwitz to America. There is infinite value in Jewish connection, and if we have written a book that adds one more link, then I am a happy former Ottumwa resident.

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the third of Michael Holinstat’s four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she works with her father to arrange school visits and help research and write his memoir.

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