April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat on Holocaust “Survivors Club”

Photo courtesy of FSG Books for Young Readers

Photo courtesy of FSG Books for
Young Readers

See SLJ‘s review of Survivors Club

A little over a year ago, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat sat down with her father, Michael Bornstein, determined to chronicle the incredible story of his experiences living in Nazi-occupied Poland and surviving the Holocaust as a young child. The result: Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar; Gr 6-8). SLJ chatted with Holinstat about her book, an SLJ January Popular Pick, and what students can gain from learning about the Holocaust.

How did this book come together?
I have wanted to help my dad [coauthor Michael Bornstein] write down his story for as long as I can remember. He always resisted talking about the Holocaust, though. He preferred to let survivors older than him, who remembered more details, carry the burden. Those survivors are passing on, and my dad has suddenly become acutely aware that he is left with this huge responsibility to ensure [that] the next generation understands the atrocities of the Holocaust—and never forgets.

I think being a grandfather to 11 grandchildren made the responsibility all the more real. His kids and grandchildren pushed and pressed and finally convinced him to talk.

The final push, though, came as we learned new information about his survival, via several Holocaust museums. We didn’t know how he managed to survive for half a year inside a death camp (Auschwitz) where the average lifespan of a child was just two weeks. When old paperwork was shared with us, the importance of telling his story suddenly seemed undeniable.

1701-NF-Bornstein-SurvivorsClubWhat was it like researching your family history?
As a TV news producer for MSNBC, I’m accustomed to researching people’s backgrounds, but digging up information on your own family history is a whole different ball game. We [listened] to old audio recordings and videotaped testimony. We were [also] granted access to a private diary written by one survivor who knew my dad and his family well. My mother and sister worked tirelessly to help research, and I spent weeks interviewing relatives and family friends. How can I describe what it felt like to tell my own dad that I had learned his father was a true hero who courageously saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives?

It’s an incredibly moving account. What do you hope students will take away from your father’s experiences?

I have three kids, and my gut is always to be overprotective, but when it comes to learning about the Holocaust, honestly, I think students should feel horrified and shocked by historical accounts. I think readers should always remember the first Holocaust book they’ve read. No one should ever forget.

But we didn’t write Survivors Club to leave readers in fear—just the opposite. The book has a really uplifting ending, and I hope the [prevailing] message of optimism reminds students that even in the face of the most awful circumstances, hope can carry them a long way. My father’s family always clung to the saying, “This too shall pass.” Whether it’s bullying or academic struggles or anything students may face in their life, staying positive can legitimately help.

How can librarians and educators better educate students about the Holocaust?

I think it’s really important for students to understand that the Holocaust isn’t “ancient history.” The systematic killing of six million Jews happened just last century…some victims, like my father, still walk the earth today. Before the war his family lived a very happy, prosperous life like so many kids do today. His family worked, had parties, studied, and spent holidays together; they never imagined that what started as just hateful talk about Jews, could turn into a real-life effort to “exterminate” every Jew from an entire continent.

I also think it’s important to see the Holocaust through today’s lens. There is a rise of anti-Semitism, according to the American Defamation League. The ACLU points to an increasing tolerance for hate crimes against black people, Jewish people, gay people, and Muslim people. It doesn’t mean we’re headed straight for another Holocaust, of course. But it’s something for students to think about.

This article was published in School Library Journal's January 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple



  1. I lived in North Caldwell for many years. My three children graduated from West Essex. The name Michael Bornstein is familiar to me. But I don’t know when he came to North Caldwell or how long he lived there. Shen I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, my beloved parents helped escapees from the holocaust who were fortunate to be admitted to the U.S, despite the high level of anti-Semitism and the burying of the facts in the back of respectable newspapers like the New York Times, the marching of bundists in New Jersey and in the Yorkville section of New York. One of my best friends, Frank Mittelberger, a first rate Mechanical Engineer and is brother succeeded in coming to the U.S. As I approach my 95th birthday, I so my best to pass on the bitter history of Hitler’s rise to power and the destruction of Jewish life in Europe that he and his kind caused. I alos pass on as much as I can about Stalin and the soviet anti-Semitism as I can; I intend to buy the book and appreciate your having written it.