Survivor Stories
Isak Borenstein
I went to see Schindler's List. I was physically broken. Schindler protected. Ninety-nine percent did not have protection. How can you see taking children and throwing them down from the top floor? I cannot imagine it. I have no answer to it. Yet, now you have professors who deny the Holocaust. I am asking you how can they deny what everybody knows is true?

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I come from Radom, Poland. We were a big family, 3 sisters and 3 brothers. My father was a livestock dealer. He would buy cattle and take them to another farmer to be fattened up. When the animals were fat, we sold them to Jewish butchers. I would walk the cattle from the country to our house where we had big yard with a stable.

If the animal was for our own food, then we butchered it at home. This was technically against the law because butchering was supposed to be done in a slaughterhouse. When the shochet came to our house, I would carry his knife. It was over a foot long and razor sharp. To be kosher the shochet had to cut the animal's throat with a quick one-two motion. The animals suffered little. Then the shochet would open up the chest and take out the lungs. He would blow them up and examine them. If the lungs were damaged, then the meat could not be kosher and we would sell it to the gentiles. I would pull out the veins by the light of a candle. Before it was cooked the meat would be soaked in water for an hour. Then it would be salted on all sides and washed. All of this was done because there could be no blood left in the meat. Jews cannot eat blood.

So many things happened to me during the war. When the Germans came into Poland, I ran away to Russia. I ran as far as Krasnodar. There I worked as a carpenter. In 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia, I joined the Russian army. We were sent to a place near Kremenchug. Before we could fight we were caught in a pocket and were surrounded by the Germans. I am sorry that I did not get a chance to fight.

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When we surrendered, I was with 35 other Jews. Only two survived the shootings. The rest were picked out by the Germans and killed. So I decided to change my name from Borenstein, which was a Jewish name, to Broniewski, which was a Polish name.

As we were marching with thousands of other men into a prisoners-of-war camp, I escaped. We were being marched around a corner, and I jumped out of the line onto the sidewalk. A Russian woman took me aside and hid me. She repaired my shoes. I ran to a little town whose name I can't remember now, but translated it meant "five houses".

At a hospital nearby I worked for bread and soup. I joined the partisans. However, before we got a chance to fight, a Russian teacher, a good friend of mine named Romanoff, got drunk. When he was drunk, he talked too much. The Germans squeezed him, and he gave up the names of 60 people. I was arrested in the forest and taken to a prison in Dnepropetrovsk.

In jail somebody told them I looked like a Jew. They brought me down into the death chamber of the jail. There in the basement of the jail was a dark room. It was maybe 6 feet wide and 25 feet long. Just one brick was taken out for air. They kept me down there for ten days. During this time they brought in three Jewish transports and then took them out to shoot them.

In the jail there was a young girl named Ira Pogorelskaja -- I will never forget her. She was about nineteen. She had blonde hair and was very beautiful. How did I know this? I saw her face in the light when they took us to the toilet. She nursed me when I could not move because of the beatings. They used to throw bread down there for us. I was so weak I could not get any. Ira held me in her arms and protected me from the other prisoners. She saved my bread and fed me. She was half- Jewish and a member of the Communist youth organization. They took her out of the jail and she never returned.

I tried to find Ira Pogorelskaja after the war. One time I was in a train station, and an old lady asked me if she could get a ride to Ira's home town, Dnepropetrovsk. I asked her if she knew her. She said she was Ira Pogorelskaja's grandmother. I told her what I knew. She said Ira was never heard from again.

In the death chamber I was tortured. I given cold showers. I was beaten with leather straps until my skin turned the color of wood. They looked to see if I was circumcised. If I was circumcised they would know I was a Jew. I made up a story: I told them that I was a bed wetter. I had put a tight string around my penis and it had cut me. A Volksdeutscher said, "This guy has been beaten so much that if he was a Jew he would already have confessed." They believed me that I was a Russian soldier, so they put me back in a regular cell. There in the cell a Polish officer recognized me as being a Jew. He started yelling, "Jew, Jew, Jew." The Russian prisoners beat that officer so much that he did not say anything. It was pure luck that I survived.

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I was put into a labor camp near Dnepropetrovsk. In 1943 a Jewish fellow told me the story of his life. He did not know I was a Jew. He said, "I know I am not going to be alive, but you, a Russian, may be alive." Later, they took him to the washroom with 49 other Jews, 25 men and 24 women. They undressed them, but left their socks on. They put potato sacks over their heads. They put them on trucks, and we never saw them again. You think I don't dream about that fellow?

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The Russian army was coming near us, so they put us on a train. We were taken to Auschwitz, where our train stopped for half a day, but there was no room in Auschwitz for us. So they took us to Mauthausen . At Mauthausen there was a checkpoint: Good, you went to work; Bad, you went to the ovens; Half-bad, you went to the hospital. I was lucky. I had typhoid. They put me in the camp hospital, which was a place for moderately sick people to recover.

In the hospital a Pole recognized that I was Jewish and wanted to help me. He knew I wouldn't survive if I stayed in the hospital, so he sent me out on the next transport to a sub-camp of Mauthausen called Schlier-Redl-Zipf. There we were put to work building a factory inside of a mountain. I never knew what the factory was for. One day the mountain exploded. No more factory. From there I was sent to another sub-camp of Mauthausen called Linz III. I was put to work for the Hermann Goring Works (Reichswerke Hermann Goring) cutting out tank wheels with a torch.

How many hangings were there? In Linz III, they hung 6 Russian boys. The SS put us out to watch. You cannot see anything. You do not feel anything. They make you feel like an animal. It was a slaughterhouse. Absolutely not describable! How can you forget?

While we were working, I heard this guard say, "I am going to kill one of them so the other men will work harder." His gun was pointed at me. I understood German, but I could not let on that I knew it. I just kept on working. Then the other guard said, "He is a soldier just like you, a soldier who wants to go home to his family."

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Once my block official got mad at me because I got some extra soup. He said, "I'll fix you up, I'll put you on the transport with the dead." While we were waiting for the transport an SS man with a dog came by. He saw my low number, which was 37,200 something, I can't remember it exactly now. The low number meant that I had been in the camp for a long time. It was an unwritten law of the camp that you got some respect with a low number. The SS man said, "You have time to die; get back on the block." Again I was saved.

They put me in a Kommando, a Bomb Kommando. This meant we dug out the unexploded bombs which the English and the Americans threw down. In six months we dug out 64 bombs. We had one explosion. We were about 150 feet away. I was saved.

They had a crane about 200 feet high, which brought coal to the factory. The planes tried to bomb the crane. One bomb hit the railing of the crane sideways on its stomach. It was chipped up a little bit, and this slowed down the speed of the bomb. It fell down on the coals, but could not dig in too deep. They came to get us to go defuse this bomb. There was no way we could unscrew the fuse. So I asked them to bring me a metal chisel and a hammer. I sat down on the bomb and tried to knock it loose. I kept hammering until the fuse broke off. At this everybody started running away. I just got up and looked at it, like it was nothing. Dead today or dead tomorrow. I don't know if I was so stupid. I did not care if I was alive. I was so lucky.

We were working on a barge during the last days of the war before the American army came in. We filled up sacks of oats or wheat (these were two hundred pound sacks), and we carried them from the barge to a train.

There at the last minute I was a lucky man again. While we were sleeping on one side of the barge, our SS guards were sleeping on the other side. On this, the last night, we heard an officer come onto the barge. He told the guards to get rid of us. Then they would have to go and fight to defend Germany. We knew what this meant, that to get rid of us meant to kill us. All night we could hear the officer and the guards arguing back and forth about what to do with us.

The guards were older men; they did not want to fight. They argued that since they had taken us from Linz III, they had to account for us by returning us to the same camp. At about 4:00 or 5:00 o'clock in the morning, the officer finally gave in.

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The guards marched us to a train. The train stopped in a little town called Wels. Around noon an American soldier came by. He looked to us to be about six foot six. He was a colored man. He ordered us to gather up the rifles, to break all of them except for 4 and to take the SS prisoners back to Linz III. I could not go into the camp. My emotions. I went inside a store where I found a ten pound sack of sugar. I took a pot and made a fire out in a field. I put the sugar in some water and I fed myself sugar and water for three days. After three days I said to myself, it was time to go home.

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On the way home to Poland I came to a little bridge over the Elbe River. On the other side was a Russian soldier. He asked me where I was going? I told him I was going home. He said, "No you are not going home. You are going into the Russian army." So I looked at him like I am crazy. I asked him, "Who is going to carry whomme the rifle or the rifle me?" I weighed just ninety pounds. He said, "Don't worry. You have bones, the meat will grow." Then he took me to the army.

I was in the Russian army for fourteen months. I worked on a train taking back Russians prisoners-of-war from Germany to Russia. After I got out of the army, I went back to our house in Radom. At our home everything looked exactly as if I had left yesterday, even the furniture, everything in the house the same. There were just strange people were there. I could not stay. I passed through the whole town. Out of 34,000 Jewish people I could not even find ten Jewish people left.

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Our neighbor had a letter from my older brother, Abe, who was the only other Borenstein to survive the war. He had survived Buchenwald concentration camp and was sick. He was recovering in a sanatorium in Germany. When I went to see him, I told the people there that I wanted to surprise him. When he came down, I saw a broken man. It was hard. I did not recognize him. He was just a broken-down man.

My brother told me that after I left Radom for Russia at the beginning of the war, the Germans had come looking for me. When they couldn't find me, they looked up another Jewish boy who lived near us who had the same name as I did-- Borenstein. We were not exactly friends, but we knew each other. The Germans came to my house looking for me, but since they could not find me, they looked him up. They took him out and shot him by the door of his house. A Borenstein is a Borenstein. Can you imagine? I do not know if I feel guilty. It is hard to talk about this. It hurts.

Abe and I lived in Stuttgart, Germany for a few years. I met my wife there. She is also a survivor from Radom. We came to New Orleans in 1951. Abe and I started a woodworking shop. We bought rental apartments. Abe wrote a testament about what happened to our family during the war, but I still have not read it. Abe died in 1974.

Today, when we get together with friends, we talk of happiness. But before you know it we are right back there. There is no way to get away from it.

How do I deal with it? By just going praying. I get up at 5:30 a.m. I go to work. I make myself busy. If not busy, I might go crazy. Busy night and day. I remember nothing. Cut it off.

In 1968, a group of survivors called the New Americans Social Club started to celebrate the Yizkor memorial service for the Holocaust survivors. I got the idea to build a big wooden menorah to hold the memorial candles. I would donate it to the Jewish Community Center in memory of my parents and my wife's parents. I started to build it quite a few times, but it did not work out. In 1988 I thought up the plans I wanted. The menorah is lit each year in the spring. The 6 candles stand for the 6 million Jews who perished. The Star of David stands for the State of Israel. The olive branch is for the new generation rising from the ashes.

Sometimes I try to go back to my past, and it is unbelievable for me. Sometimes I think I am just dreaming.


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