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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Survivors Club

The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz

Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

Square Fish




“Sophie, keep Samuel with you and watch through the window,” Papa called to Mamishu, my mother. “Do not move.”

Papa grabbed a burlap sack and raced from the kitchen to the bedroom, filling the bag with silver picture frames, some crystal, my mother’s pearls, and many gold coins.

It was October 1939, and German soldiers were coming to my family’s redbrick house on Sosnawa Street in Zarki, Poland.

Mamishu stood by the living room window as daylight was beginning to dim outside and tapped her index finger nervously against my older brother Samuel’s small, dimpled hand. Her other hand rested on her swollen belly, where I was still in a blissful state of coming into being.

“Israel, we should have thought of this sooner! It’s too late. Just put it all under our bed and let’s hope they don’t check there. You’re acting crazy!”

“I know exactly what I’m doing, Sophie. Just stay right there and tell me when they get close.”

When I heard about this scene years later, I was always told that Papa spoke with a voice so soothing, it hardly matched the frantic movements Mamishu could see reflected in the window.

Through the glass she was watching packs of German soldiers, neat yet chilling in their button-front uniforms, tall black boots, and matching red armbands with a spiderlike symbol inside a white circle. Every soldier carried a sidearm or a rifle slung over his shoulder. The troops marched into our neighbors’ houses, coming out minutes later with piles of furs, leather coats, and jewelry-filled pillowcases draped over their arms.

Four-year-old Samuel buried his face into the folds of Mamishu’s layered peach-colored skirt each time a gunshot rang out from inside a neighbor’s home.

The soldiers were only three houses away now, and Mamishu looked nervously from the front door to the back as my father raced about the house. Bobeshi—that’s the Yiddish endearment the family used for Grandma Dora, my father’s mother, with whom we lived—sat watching the scene from the sofa.

Earlier that day, German soldiers had announced they would be going door-to-door that afternoon and ordered Jewish residents to be prepared to hand over whatever valuables Germany’s Nazi (short for National Socialist) government requested. Under normal circumstances you would call it robbery. The German invaders, however, insisted it was a Jew’s responsibility to contribute to the Third Reich (the name the Nazis used for their regime) and help make it richer and stronger.

In our house there would have been plenty to steal. Papa was an accountant and had always been careful to save his money. That day, when soldiers began taking “contributions,” Papa was hell-bent on protecting what we had.

“If you’re so determined to do this, at least remember the cup!” Mamishu called softly, her eyes still trained out the living room window.

“I’ve already got it,” Papa said, ducking out into the backyard as soldiers’ voices grew louder and closer.

From the back door, he counted his steps in Yiddish: “Eyn, tsvey, dray, fir, finef, zeks…” He stopped at a soft spot in the soil and dug with his hands until his fingers were black with dirt. To a passerby, he would have looked like a man planting bulbs in the fall and looking forward to a spring of blossoms. I guess you could say my father was planting. He was burying our family’s seeds of hope.

Within a minute, a hidden cavity appeared—a hole reinforced with a piece of scrap metal Papa had bent into a cylindrical shape. It was a makeshift vault, into which he dropped the sack with all our valuables—including one small unadorned silver cup, called a kiddush cup, which is used on Shabbat (the Sabbath). That’s a holy day celebrated every week in Jewish homes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It’s marked by prayer, wine, and song. Shabbat is intended to be a time of rest and the most peaceful day of the week. The kiddush cup is raised in gratitude.

But there hadn’t been much to sing about or celebrate in Zarki since the invasion—especially for Jews. Everything had changed in a matter of weeks.

Jews could not ride buses, and Jewish children weren’t allowed to go to school anymore. The Nazis shut down or took over most Jewish businesses. A strict 8:00 p.m. curfew was enforced; anyone caught outside after curfew was arrested or killed. Jews were forced to wear white bands around their arms with a blue six-point Star of David on them so that everyone would know who was Jewish.

When Nazi soldiers banged at the door, Mamishu let out a strange screech—like a scream that was strangled by fear. She had meant to calmly say Come in, but of course pleasantries weren’t necessary. The door was pushed open before Mamishu even found her voice.

Please appear, please appear, please come back, my mother surely begged my father in her mind as two soldiers barged in, one tall, one squat.

As if he’d been summoned telekinetically, her husband materialized in the living room doorframe—his shirt retucked and his expression giving no hint at the panic he’d been on the verge of just moments before. His hands, which he’d soiled from digging in the dirt, were now as clean and unsuspicious as his expression. Papa had gotten the job done.

“We need five hundred zlotys and your jewels! Now!” the tall soldier demanded.

“Of course,” Papa said, handing over a pile of cash, along with a charm necklace worth little and a man’s pinky ring he had once found on a train without ever being able to identify the owner. He had left these two meaningless items in a side-table drawer before the soldiers arrived, anticipating they would want some jewelry.

“Surely you can’t expect us to believe this is all you have,” the soldier said as he gave his comrade a nod.

The short soldier quickly moved closer to Samuel and my mother, and he pulled out his sidearm, waving it wildly in their direction. “I see you have so much that is valuable. I am sure you can do better.” A dark expression crossed his face as he knelt down in front of Samuel—clearly taking notice of my brother’s left hand.

Samuel’s right hand clutched Mamishu’s skirt, but his left hung at his side, closed in a tight fist.

“Why don’t you open your hand, child?” the soldier asked in a gentle voice. “Let’s see what you’re hiding.”

Mamishu was crying—terrified that the soldier had taken notice of Samuel. She knew her little collector wasn’t hiding anything precious, though. In fact, she knew before he uncurled his doughy little fingers what would be resting on his palm.

“It’s just a little rock, sir,” Mamishu said. “He collects them.”

Samuel revealed a small round gray stone—the kind of pebble you could find on any street in Poland. Samuel almost always had a rock in his hand or in his pocket—and he thought each one was unique and precious.

The soldier was not amused. He didn’t like to be wrong—certainly not in front of Jews. He looked at my parents’ faces. He looked at Grandma Dora. If any one of them had shown a hint of a smile, he would undoubtedly have shot them all.

No one was smiling.

“Please, help yourself to whatever the government may need,” Papa interrupted.

By then, the first soldier was already searching through closets and drawers. He needed no invitation.

It seems so irrelevant now, but then it was heartbreaking for Mamishu to see her prized mink jacket pulled from the hall closet and slung over the soldier’s arm. Papa had saved for a year to surprise her with this gift. She felt like one of those American movie stars from Hollywood whenever she wore it—even if it was just for a walk in the neighborhood.

A few long minutes later, as the soldiers gathered up their takings and prepared to leave, the shorter of the two spotted an ornate clock on twisted brass feet sitting on the edge of the hallway pedestal table. A gift her grandparents had given Grandma Dora on the day she became engaged, it had been handed down to Mamishu on her wedding day.

“Oh, shouldn’t this be kept behind glass, something so special?” asked the squat soldier, gesturing toward the table. “You should be more careful with your keepsakes.” Then he watched my mother to gauge her reaction as he used his hand to nudge the clock toward the edge of the table.

Mamishu held her expression steady. “Yes, thank you. I’ll be more careful.”

In slow motion, the diminutive man in uniform continued to guide the clock to the table’s edge, waiting, waiting for a reaction.

When it was clear the fragile timepiece was about to fall, Mamishu gasped.

It was just enough to turn the soldier’s blank expression into a nasty smile. “Oh!” he said as he gave the clock its final push. “My mistake.”

The heavy heirloom fell to the floor with a crash. The glass face shattered into small pieces that flew to every corner of the hall. One twisted brass foot broke off. The clock was destroyed.

“You’re so clumsy,” the taller soldier said with a laugh, clapping his comrade on the back as they nodded toward Mamishu in false politeness.

And then they were gone.

When Mamishu closed the door behind them, Samuel folded his little body in half and, with his head bent to his knees, wailed with the weight of his whole being. He cried and cried and could not stop.

“No, Samuel, no.” Mamishu rubbed his back. “It’s all right. I’m not scared. Papa isn’t scared. The men just needed some of our things to share with the new government. We are happy to help them.”

Mamishu was trying hard to stay hopeful, but nights like this made it difficult. And deep in their gut all Jews in Zarki knew what they should expect. It had been laid out in perfect detail just a month earlier—on a day that came to be known as Bloody Monday.

Text copyright © 2017 by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat