The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic amongst teachers tackling the history of World War Two in schools. Most of us can remember the first time we picked that book up; the devastatingly true diary haunted many of us for years. What was so special about it was undoubtedly its truthfulness. We were there with Anne, in that cramped little annex, living through her fear, but also through her trying to find the normal in every day. Anne Frank was and always has been an absolute classic.
Survivors Club is another one of those classics.
Michael Bornstein is no writer. He worked in pharmaceutical research for over forty years, having moved to New York City at the end of World War Two. But his experiences speak incredibly strongly about the stories he holds in his head. Michael Bornstein was born during the Second World War, and was imprisoned in Auschwitz at an incredibly young age – four years old. He was one of the youngest prisoners of Auschwitz. Of the 2 819 inmates freed by the Russians at the end of the war, only 52 were under eight – and one of these children was Michael. In fact, Michael’s freedom from Auschwitz has been immortalised, completely unbeknownst to him at the time, by an incredibly famous film still (Michael is pictured here, front right).
However, the difference between the classic of Anne Frank and the new classic of Michael Bornstein is this: Anne told her story as it happened. Michael has only started to speak about it publicly now, inspired by the resurgence of intolerance and hate he has seen in online formats. So he tells his family story to his daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, who writes it down into this beautifully crafted memoir. In addition to his daughter, Michael tracked down other family members who survived the war, as well as returning to Auschwitz and his hometown of Zarki in Poland. This book is not just a recount of the horrors of World War Two, but ultimately an inspirational story of survival, hope, and love.
The stories track Michael’s life so seamlessly that it feels as though we are there with him. As a memoir, Michael and Debbie have recreated scenes they know to have happened (either through memory or through conversations with friends and family) and woven them into a stunning story, with “fictionalised” dialogue and representation of family life. We see snippets of the family surviving and keeping hopeful through the occupation of Zarki and eventually their transferral to Auschwitz, and despite the horror, the thing that stays with us the most is his family’s courage and enduring love.
There is no denying that Survivors Club is an intense read. While written smoothly, with great dexterity, and undoubtedly for tweens, the themes themselves are heavy, and the realities of the horrors of World War Two can be confronting for some children. For this reason, we recommend Survivors Club for ages thirteen and up, but it is an essential book. This is a new voice speaking of old stories that we cannot let ourselves forget if we, as a people, are ever going to move forward. And we must.