Ernst Bornstein: The man who survived SEVEN Nazi death camps
On the night of Wednesday March 25, 1941, 18-year-old student Ernst Bornstein was marched down the street by the Nazis who had raided his home.
Beating and pushing him with their rifles they shoved him down the stairs and along the street.
Glancing up at the second floor he could see the agonised face of his mother.
“I managed to behold my mother’s crying eyes, which accompanied me into the deep, dark night. I never saw her again,” wrote Ernst, who was to spend the next four years enduring the horror of seven concentration camps and five transit camps before being liberated by American soldiers in Bavaria on April 30, 1945.
Of an extended family numbering 72 at the start of the war, by its conclusion only six had survived including Ernst and his sister Regina.
His parents and two younger sisters perished at Auschwitz. Throughout his ordeal Ernst resolved to honour his murdered family by doing whatever it took to survive.
Through a combination of luck, the kindness of strangers, including a German officer, and a forensic ability to determine the motives of others and the will to help his companions, Ernst survived to write an astonishing memoir.
His account was published in Germany in 1967. By then Ernst had found eminence, training as a dentist and then again as a doctor, and through his commitment to honouring those who had died by showing compassion to people in need regardless of their nationality.
But tragically, in 1978 at the age of 55, Ernst died of a heart condition acquired during his years of starvation and forced labour.
He left three young children who were aware that their father was special but who did not know the details of what had happened to him during the war.
“As a child of five or six I would always say to him: ‘Tell me what happened to you in the camps.’ And he would say: ‘When you reach the age of 13 you will read my book,’” recalls his son Alain, a solicitor from London who was seven when his father died.
For years Alain and his older sisters, who moved to Manchester with their mother a year after she was widowed, could bear to read only a few passages.
But eight years ago Alain’s sister Dr Noemie Bornstein, who like her father had trained as a GP and who is named after one of his lost sisters, decided to translate the book into English.
It took her three years and has been published to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, which takes place on January 27.
Ernst’s book may convey in gruesome detail the minutiae of the daily horror but it also captures remarkable relationships.
When he was separated from his father at the first camp to which they had been sent Ernst writes of how tears stuck in his throat as he tried to appear cheerful.
“I said: ‘Mama does not need to worry about me. I am well and with my connections I can even help others.’ My father hugged me and tenderly he stroked my hair and said: ‘Who knows when we will see each other again, perhaps you will experience and endure a great deal. Don’t forget who you are. Stay strong and full of hope.’”
A few moments later the camp gate opened and he watched his father leave.
They would never see each other again.
Although his father had been sent home because of a sick note arranged by his devoted son, Ernst soon received a letter from his parents explaining that their town had now been “cleansed of Jews” and that they were “standing in front of our wagons”.
It added: “Like other transports before us we are probably going to the extermination at Auschwitz. Stay strong and make sure that you stay alive.”
His family may have met a fate he describes as “inescapable” but while Ernst sat sobbing in a labour camp storeroom after receiving the letter because of the kindness of a German officer who treated him with humanity, Ernst writes of how: “I knew I had to sustain my parents’ legacy for the sake of the love and care that they had given to me.”
In his later medical career these experiences led Ernst to treat everyone the same.
“He had a restlessness to help anyone and was indefatigable in that,” explains Alain of his father, who founded the Association of Ex-Concentration Camp Inmates in Munich.
“For example one of his German patients had lost her husband and had no children and did not know what to do. As my mother had just given birth we basically adopted this non-Jewish lady as a grandmother.”
Fewer than 20 years earlier Ernst had been “skin and bone” as he was forced to march through Germany to evade the Red Army.
“A death march because those who could not walk it were instantly shot dead,” he writes.
On the journey Ernst befriended teenager Yaakov Bloch, a butcher’s son.
“This boy used to carry sick people in his arms when they did not have the strength to walk. By doing so he saved them from sure death.”
Yaakov, however, was shot dead by the SS when they arrived in the main camp of Gross-Rosen.
In April 1945 the Nazis wanted to transfer the surviving prisoners, including Ernst, to the mountains of the Tyrol “in order to destroy us there”, he writes.
“They packed us into boxcars and transported us in the direction of Munich. While we were in transit the Americans mounted an offensive and captured the train tracks. We were free.”
Everyone fled from the train but the “SS murderers” drove the group back into the wagons and began killing indiscriminately.
True liberation came the following morning.
But there was no celebration for Ernst.
He spent the day next to the mass grave filled with friends who had died just 24 hours before the actual liberation, defiant in his determination never to let the world forget.
Through the process of working on the book – Alain and his wife were its editors – the siblings have got to know their father as adults.
“I didn’t know why our father was so special but after he died I had a dream that I had been picked up by the Gestapo,” says Noemie who was 12 when he died and who started reading her father’s book in her mid-30s after the birth of her youngest child.
“I had never heard of such a thing at that age yet when I read the book I couldn’t digest what I was reading. It was both harrowing and cathartic.
“As I started reading I had a feeling that I had to carry the baton for him and that I must never let this book be forgotten.”
By Jane Warren