Michael was born in 1940 in Zarki, Poland, to Sophie and Israel Bornstein. He had an older brother named Samuel. His mother had six siblings, and the large family was always around taking care of little Michael.
Michael’s family had a happy life in Zarki before the Germans’ occupation of Poland. Jews made up more than 50% of the town and were a thriving community. As the Germans occupied Poland, life for the Jews in Zarki became challenging.
On July 11, 1944, Michael, his parents Sophie and Israel, brother Samuel, and grandparents were put on cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz. Upon arrival in the camp, men and women were separated. Michael, being four years old, was sent to the children’s bunk. Michael’s mother, Sophie, desperately wanted to find out what happened to her husband and son. One day, when Sophie was working by the fence that separates the men’s camp, she asked a group of men to find out what happened to Israel and Samuel. She learned of their tragic death in the gas chamber. Distraught, Sophie wanted to give up and throw herself on the electrified fence. Sophie knew that Michael needed her and returned.
The children in Michael’s barrack were older and took every opportunity to steal his bread. Sophie would sneak into the barrack so she could share her bread rations with Michael. Even the beatings she received for her actions would not deter her. To further protect Michael, Sophie snuck him into the women’s barrack, where his grandmother Dora would hide him under straw while the women went to work. When Sophie was sent to Austria to work in a munitions factory, he remained in the women’s barrack with Dora.
As the Russian army was advancing, the prisoners were set to embark on a death march. Michael was starving and too malnourished to grow hair. Neither he nor Dora would survive the harsh conditions of the death march. Dora had a plan, and she and Michael snuck into the infirmary to hide. Hiding in the infirmary saved both their lives. Michael was liberated at the age of four. He had spent six months in Auschwitz.
After liberation, Michael and Dora found themselves homeless and destitute. Dora found a farm on the outskirts of town and hid them in a chicken coop. Michael would soon be reunited with his mother and other family members who survived. Miraculously all of his mother’s six siblings survived the War.
Out of 34,000 Jews who lived in Zarki before the German occupation, only twenty-seven returned to Zarki. These mainly were Michael’s family. When Sophie returned to Zarki, she searched for valuables they had buried in the backyard of their old house. Every hidden valuable was stolen except for a kiddush cup. The kiddush cup Sophie retrieved will later become a family heirloom.
In 1956, Michael and Sophie emigrated to the US. Michael felt invisible in his new surroundings. He was different than the rest of the children. Michael didn’t speak the language. He had no money, no father, and a number tattooed on his arm. Neither the students nor the teacher acknowledged that he was in the Holocaust. Sophie was supportive and optimistic, teaching Michael the mantra, “This too shall pass.” This mantra will stay with Michael for the rest of his life.
His experiences haunted Michael. He remembered the putrid smell of burning flesh, the sound of screams and marching boots, the beatings. He was aware of the anti-Semitism in the US. As a result, he contemplated removing the tattoo on his arm and changing his name. He never spoke about what had happened.
After seventy years of silence, Michael revealed his story when his oldest grandson was doing a mitzvah project and wanted him to speak to the class. The request drove Michael to search for images of himself he had seen in a liberation movie called “The Chosen.” Michael was stunned to see himself on the screen. The young boy was showing his number to the camera, number B1148. It was him. Michael and his daughter Debbie found the image they were looking for on a Holocaust deniers page. The site used his picture, which captioned “pretty healthy children for a ‘death camp .” The site’s goal was to debunk the fallacy that Jewish children had been put to death by the Germans in Auschwitz. Outraged, Michael knew that now he must share his story and educate the world.
Michael lives in New Jersey with his wife, Judy. They have four kids and twelve grandkids. He still uses his mother’s kiddush cup for every Shabbat holiday or special event in his family’s life.