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Photo of Holocaust survivors leads to reunion 72 years later

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 29/06/2017 Cheryl Makin
Debbie Bornstein Holistat and her father Michael Bornstein wrote a book about his experiences as a four-year-old who survived Auschwitz. The book, "Survivor's Club," and its front cover led to a reunion of three of the children - Bornstein, Sarah Ludwig (right) and Tova Friedman (center) - on June 11. © ~Courtesy of Debbie Bornstein Holinstat Debbie Bornstein Holistat and her father Michael Bornstein wrote a book about his experiences as a four-year-old who survived Auschwitz. The book, "Survivor's Club," and its front cover led to a reunion of three of the children - Bornstein, Sarah Ludwig (right) and Tova Friedman (center) - on June 11.

SOMERVILLE, N.J. — Michael Bornstein was only 4 years old when he was liberated from Auschwitz. He survived, along with his grandmother Dora, frail and sick, but alive.

Upon his release, he posed — showing the photographer the tattooed number on his arm — along with other liberated children in a photo that has become synonymous with the lessons of the Holocaust.

Never did he think that photo would lead — 72 years later — to a reunion with some of the other children. On June 11, Bornstein, 77, Tova Friedman, 79, of Highland Park and Sarah Ludwig, 77, of Livingston gathered together for a "bagel brunch" at the home of Bornstein's daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, in North Caldwell.

"We hugged. It was really a great moment," said Bornstein, who first saw the photo as a clip in the movie The Chosen in 1981. "It was a happy moment. Of course we talked and there were some sad things, but overall it was positive."

Bornstein and Holinstat are co-authors of the recently released Survivor's Club, a memoir of Bornstein's experiences during the Holocaust. Friedman's story is told in Milton J. Nieuwsma's Surviving Auschwitz: Children of the Shoah, published in 1998 and made into a PBS special.

"We didn't know if people would still care to hear about stories of the Holocaust," Holinstat said. "It's encouraging to know that it still seems to matter to people. I'm so glad we chose that cover for the book. Without it, we would have never had the reunion."

It was real serendipity

For Bornstein, Ludwig and Friedman, the reunion was as inspiring as it was cathartic. For each, the photo was a familiar link to their childhood.

"I remember when the Russians took it (the photo). I always wondered who the other children where in that photo," said Friedman, who first learned of its existence 25 years ago from a movie shown at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. "I always wondered what happened to them." 

Ludwig called the trio's reunion — though they did not know each other in the camp — a "dream come true." She feels as if she has found more family.

"That day, I kept touching my eyes, wondering if I am dreaming this or if it is real," said Ludwig. Prior to Auschwitz, Ludwig lived in a town very close to Bornstein in Poland.

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Calling the reunion "very touching," Friedman can't get over other coincidences the photo revealed. As the children were being liberated from Auschwitz, a Soviet soldier filmed and took photos. In the photo, Ludwig stands next to Michael in the front row and diagonally in front of Friedman. Another boy who stands behind Bornstein was freed along with his twin sister. He now lives a few blocks away from an apartment Bornstein has on the Upper East Side on Manhattan. He and his sister were unable to attend the reunion.

The three who reunited all live in New Jersey. Ludwig even became the first-grade teacher of two of Friedman's grandchildren.

"I found that shocking," said Friedman, a mother of four and grandmother of eight. "It was real serendipity. Can you imagine? To be standing in Auschwitz next to the little girl who would one day teach my grandchildren. I didn't know I would be married or have children — or grandchildren? It's times like these I believe in God — and I don't always." 

She added: "It was like God was saying, 'Don't worry, there will be continuity.'" 

Holinstat called it a "celebration of survival."

"It was so nice with the children and so many grandchildren there," Holinstat said. "It's amazing just two generations there what these three have created. They are all optimistic, super-positive people. Survival is the right word because they made great lives for themselves. They didn't just survive — they thrived." 

This too shall pass

Not one to dwell on the negative, Bornstein did not share his Holocaust experience for years. It was not a secret, but just not spoken of, Holinstat said. Even when his daughter traveled to Europe and was going to Auschwitz, he begged her not to go.

"He did not want us to see what he had been through," she said. "He did not want us to see the injustice and the wars that can exist in the world."

It wasn't until 2012, when his grandson Jake asked him to help with his bar mitzvah project, that Bornstein shared his story. Jake wanted to educate others on the Holocaust and Bornstein became a willing partner.

"He didn't speak of it until Jake asked," Holinstat said. "I guess it was easier to put that in the past. Anytime we would ask, he would prefer to focus on the positive."

At four years old, Bornstein, his mother Sophie, grandmother, father and older brother were taken from their small town of Zarki, Poland, and sent to Auschwitz. Bornstein was taken to the children's camp, while his mother and grandmother went to the women's camp. His father, Israel Bornstein, and brother Samuel were sent to the men's camp and killed.

"His mother would sneak in and would bring him food in the children's bunk — the older children were stealing his food. They were starving, too," Holinstat said. "Later she smuggled him into the women's bunk with her and his grandmother."

Having packed bullets in a previous work camp, Sophie Bornstein was sent to a Austrian labor camp to do the same job. Bornstein was left at Auschwitz with his grandmother. 

After their liberation, Bornstein and his grandmother made it back to Zarki. Their home was inhabited by others, and they found refuge in a chicken coop on a nearby farm. That is where his mother, whom he called "Mamishu," found them.

Bornstein's extended family survived the camps in hiding places such as attics, basements and bunkers and even by means of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat to Lithuania, who along with his wife, saved thousands of Jews by getting them to Japan. One cousin was hidden in a convent.

Out of a town that once had 3,400 Jews, only 27 returned. Most were members of Bornstein's family.

"My grandmother, his mother, had six brothers and sisters before the war," Holinstat said. "All seven siblings survived. That's why we called the book The Survivor's Club, because it's not just my dad's story — it's a family story."

Bornstein and his mother soon went to Munich for medical help and to obtain a visa to the U.S. His grandmother Dora chose to stay behind, saying she was too old to travel. In 1951, at 11 years old, Bornstein and his mother arrived in the U.S.

Throughout his experience and his life, his mother, always optimistic, would tell him gom ze ya'avor, or "This too shall pass." At his bar mitzvah, she gave him a gold watch with these words inscribed on the back.

"We have gotten so many letters from people who tell us the book has inspired them to know that 'This too shall pass,' " Holinstat said. 

Bornstein attended Fordham University and University of Iowa and meeting his wife Judy, at the later. He earned his doctorate and worked in pharmaceutical research and development for more than 40 years. Married for almost 50 years, the Bornsteins have four children and 11 grandchildren. 

In September, the family will journey to Poland — together. 

"The one place my father didn't want me to go to for so many years, this book has brought us a lot of closure and has led us there," Holinstat said.

How they survived

Lugwig said it is unknown exactly how she survived. Also only 4 years old at liberation, she was alone in Auschwitz. One parent was sent to Bergen-Belsen and the other to a Czechoslovakian labor camp.

"I remember the time when my mother had to hold me and they put the tattoo on me," Ludwig said. "They said, 'You are no longer Sarah Racimora, you are a number.'"

When the war ended, her mother got on a train and headed to a children's orphanage in search of her daughter.

"She heard there were some child survivors," Holinstat said. "On the train headed there, Sarah's mother ran into someone she knew from her town and was told, 'You know your husband is on the back of the train.' Isn't that a miracle?"

Ludwig has been married 50 years and had two children and several grandchildren. 

"Unfortunately, or fortunately," Friedman, 79, remembers "about 90%" about her experience during the time of the Holocaust.

"I was with my mother a lot and she talked to me all the time — so that I would know what I saw was authentic and real, and when she told me to hide I did and when she told me it was safe I knew that I was OK," she said. "

From Tomaszow Mazowiecki, a town in Poland, Friedman, nee Grossman, came from a huge family of rabbis. Her mother had nine brothers and sisters — all of whom had children.

Before the war, Friedman's hometown had 15,000 Jews — after the war, 300.

"There were 5,000 children in my town," said Friedman, who is a therapist at Jewish Family Services in Somerville, where she previously held the title of executive director. "Four were left. I am number four."

Among the survivors were her mother and father. Three of her father's sisters survived — one was later killed by an anti-Semitic mob in Poland.

"We waited three years," she said. "Nobody came back."

She survived because she was "lucky," Friedman said. In the days right before the camps were liberated, the Germans were "sending everybody out of Auschwitz."

"My mother wouldn't go," Friedman said. "She said she would die on the road if she went and she wouldn't leave me by myself. She did not want me to survive by myself in this world. She took me and hid me with corpses. I stayed there until liberation." 

With her parents, Friedman came to the U.S. in 1950 at the age of 12. She has been married for 57 years and has four children and eight grandchildren, most of whom attended the reunion. 

Continuing to tell the stories of survivors

One reason Bornstein decided to share his story is because "survivors are getting few and far between." Also, he and Holinstat finally found a copy of the photo on a Holocaust denier's website. That stirred the need to make sure the truth of the Holocaust is told.

Like Bornstein, Friedman believes it is crucial that the survivors' stories be shared. She tells her story about 25 times a year at schools. Recently, Friedman spoke at a Friends of Yad Vashem event.

"Now I have something new to tell the people," Friedman said.

Bornstein said he plans to add an addendum to his book, now in its sixth printing and being translated into other languages.

The new found friends plan to keep in touch.

"We are excited that a book that felt like it was filled with miracles for us led to this next chapter that we never saw coming," Holinstat said. "There was one more beautiful inspiring chapter."

 

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