Ernst Bornstein’s story of suffering at the hands of the Nazis during World War Two was all too common for Jews living in Europe at the time. But Bornstein was one of the few who came through that almost unimaginable ordeal. He managed to survive, unlike some 6,000,000 of his fellow Jews.
Ernst Israel Bornstein was born on 26 November, 1922, in the Polish city of Zawiercie. It had a substantial Jewish population at the outbreak of World War Two. Some 7,000 Jews lived in the city, something like a quarter of Zawiercie’s population. Along with his three younger siblings, Bornstein had spent his childhood there.
History records that shortly before Bornstein’s birth, there had been pogroms – vicious mobs targeting Jews – in Zawiercie in 1919 and again in 1921. Three Jews were murdered during the violence, with many others injured. Some of those who had participated in the pogroms were later imprisoned, however.
But after these outbreaks of violence, there seems to have been a peaceful co-existence between Jews and their fellow citizens. Zawiercie had Jewish schools, and Jews worked in a variety of industries including printing, manufacturing and clothing. And in 1926 a certain A. Bornstein became the city’s mayor, although as far as we know he wasn’t a relative of Ernst.
Ernst was educated at one of these Jewish schools. Apparently a quick-minded student, he was able to speak Polish, Yiddish and German. In his memoir, The Long Night, Bornstein recalled, “We were a happy family before The Night began, which lasted five years and eight days. We four children (I was the eldest of two boys and two girls), were cared for by good parents and a large circle of relatives.”
“The Night” that Bornstein refers to was of course heralded by the invasion of Poland in September 1939 by the Nazis from the west and the Russians from the east. Zawiercie was in the part of Poland occupied by the Germans, and the brutal consequences for the city’s Jews – indeed, for all Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland – were not long in coming.
The Germans arrived in Zawiercie on September 4, 1939, when Bornstein was just 16. The city’s synagogue was closed down, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend schools and the Nazis started to abduct Jews for forced labor. Jewish businesses were requisitioned the following year, and fines were levied on locals simply for being Jewish.
Then, in September 1941 the Germans ordered the Jewish population of Zawiercie into a ghetto and dragooned more Jews into forced labor. By that time Bornstein had already been taken by the Nazis and put in a labor camp. He later described the experience in his memoir: “I barely got dressed and – beating and pushing me with their rifles – they shoved me down the stairs. I still managed to behold my mother’s crying eyes, which accompanied me into the deep, dark night. I never saw my mother again.”
Bornstein was subsequently transported to Germany and set to work building a freeway. In 1943 he ended up in a concentration camp at Märkstadt, where many other Jews from Zawiercie were also incarcerated. Conditions in the camp were unremittingly harsh and Bornstein saw many of his friends die there.
The brutality at this camp was grotesque. There were as many as 4,000 Jews there, men and women from the Netherlands, France and Czechoslovakia as well as Poland. And despite being forced to do hard labor for long hours, the prisoners were not properly fed. A normal day’s food consisted of a helping of watery soup and slice of bread. Starving inmates caught stealing potatoes were executed.
“Selections” were another fact of life at Märkstadt. These involved the camp’s inmates being forced to parade while guards picked out the weak and ill for extermination. One such event occurred on November 25, 1943. Some 3,000 prisoners stood naked in the snow while the sadistic guards selected those who were to die.
In his memoir, Bornstein remembered a terrifying incident at one of the camps that he spent time in: Gross Rosen. An SS man caught him carrying some bread and demanded an explanation. Bornstein wrote, “I struggled to maintain a calm appearance while I trembled with fear as I stared down the barrel of his pistol.” The German didn’t like his explanation, however, replying, “You are lying! You stole it! You will be shot like a dog!”
But Bornstein’s presence of mind served him well. “Instinctively, I stood absolutely still and stared directly into his eyes,” Bornstein explained. Suddenly, the German smashed his pistol into Bornstein’s face and yelled at him to disappear. Such were the dangers that he lived with day in, day out during his time in the camps.
By the end of the war, Bornstein had been in no less than seven different concentration camps, every one of which in its own way was a living hell on Earth. Bornstein’s mother, father and two of his siblings were all to die in Auschwitz.
With the war drawing towards its end, Bornstein was sent on two forced marches, as the Germans herded their prisoners across Europe with the Soviet Union’s Red Army at their heels. These movements of concentration camp prisoners were known as death marches, because anyone who fell behind was shot on the spot by the Nazis. It was at this point that Bornstein arrived at the camp mentioned above: Gross Rosen.
Bornstein’s ordeal wasn’t over yet, though, as the Germans now decided to move the prisoners yet again. As they traveled by rail, however, the advancing American forces captured the line. The prisoners subsequently evacuated the train, but the SS killed many of those who ran. Yet somehow, Bornstein managed to escape this final massacre.
In the years after the war Bornstein studied at university in Munich, qualifying as a doctor and setting up a thriving practice in the city. He later married Frenchwoman called Renee, who was 12 years his junior, and they and had three children together. However, Bornstein died unexpectedly in 1978 at the age of 55. His death was caused by a heart attack, which it’s more than likely was a legacy of the incredible hardships that he’d lived through.
Before Bornstein died, he’d written a memoir. He’d been motivated to do that not only by the intensity of his own suffering, but also because he felt that, just a generation after the events, people had already started to forget the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.
The memoir, Die Lange Nacht (The Long Night), was published in German in 1967. His good friend Professor Max Mikorey, a psychiatrist at Munich University who’d acted as a mentor to Bornstein, wrote the preface. Renee and her children later moved to England after Bornstein’s death, and in 2015 they had his book translated and published in English.
This edition, however, did not contain the words of Mikorey. Research by Bornstein’s family – wife Renee and daughter Neomie are pictured here – had revealed something appalling. Mikorey had in fact been a senior Nazi, closely involved in the vile program of sterilizing Jews. He’d somehow hidden his past not only from Bornstein, but also from all those around him. He died in 1977 without ever paying for his evil deeds. And that is a compelling reminder of how important it is that the true details of the Holocaust are uncovered and remembered.