Books: Surviving the unthinkable

For the first time in English, Ernst Israel Bornstein relates his horrific experiences in the Holocaust – and how he rebuilt his life.

Ernst Israel Bornstein and his family in Strasbourg, France, in 1976 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ernst Israel Bornstein and his family in Strasbourg, France, in 1976
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Holocaust memoirs attempt to do the impossible: Describe the indescribable.
Even the most graphically written narrative cannot adequately depict the cruel and wretched conditions experienced by victims of the Nazi reign of terror.
The Long Night, originally written in German in 1967 and now co-translated into English by the author’s daughter, does its best to convey in astonishing detail the fear, humiliation, exhaustion, pain, cold, hunger and thirst – and, remarkably, the will to go on – of a young man who endured more than four years of slave labor, death marches, torture and starvation in no fewer than seven concentration camps.
Born in 1922, Ernst Israel Bornstein was 19 when his hellish odyssey began.
After liberation, half-dead himself, he confirmed that his parents and two of his three siblings had perished. He physically recovered, settled in Munich and earned medical and dental degrees, became a successful oral surgeon, married and fathered three children. Tragically, he died a few months shy of his 56th birthday.
In his introduction, Bornstein explains two motivations for penning his story: First, to answer the oft-posed question of how large masses of people could be led to slaughter seemingly without a fight.
“This account should enable the reader to feel the situation in which the Jews found themselves and to understand their responses,” he writes.
Secondly, Bornstein hoped to assist clinicians in understanding the “unprecedented psychological and social profile” of Holocaust survivors.
“Although many survivors seem to be very much part of life and achieve successes, they have remained psychologically sick people. Their present life is burdened by their past and no success can compensate for their horrific experiences,” he wrote. “The years of fear and oppression left behind damage to the psyche that is just as irreparable as damage to the gray matter of the brain.”
Bornstein realized early on that surviving necessitated making himself as invisible as possible. Those prisoners unfortunate enough to stand out – whether for defiance or weakness, “stealing” a crust of bread or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time – were beaten, shot or set upon by vicious dogs.
“In order to survive in this inferno I had to be totally inconspicuous, to extinguish my identity and lose myself amongst the protection of the faceless masses.”
Inevitably, however, there were times when he, too, was beaten mercilessly for some imaginary infraction – often by the Jewish kapos, many of whom tried to outdo their captors for sheer sadism.
One of the most heartbreaking yet inspiring scenes in the book is his recollection of receiving the last letter from his parents while serving as an electrician in the Markstadt slave-labor camp in Germany.
They wrote that they were about to be transported, probably to Auschwitz.
Young Bornstein sobbed for hours, plunging into deep despair.
“Nonetheless, after some time I felt the will to live reawaken in me. I spent hours in solitude, agonizing over my memories of parents, home and a happy childhood.
In my mind I could clearly hear my father urging me to carry on.... It was as if my parents’ deepest desire was that I should remain alive and survive my ordeal.... The wish to survive did not arise from logic, but instead from a yearning for life and freedom.”
Another poignant scenario was Yom Kippur 1943, shortly before the forced march from Markstadt. Work had halted due to torrential rain, and Bornstein and a few friends sought shelter in a dark hut where a small group of men were praying from memory. They turned to him and his friends to help them make a quorum.
“We could see how fervently these men prayed, but we were also overwhelmed by feelings of disappointment and bitterness about God and religion,” he wrote. “We were torn by the paradox. Our hearts were full of bitterness and uncried tears. We discovered it was impossible for us to recite the psalms and prayers.”
And yet: “Tearfully and with a quivering voice, we imperceptibly joined in the prayers of the faithful.... Our tiredness and hunger evaporated, our protests and resistance were forgotten. The heartrending sounds of our prayers and sobs merged with the loud drumming of the rain and the howling noise of the storm.”
In 1944, now in the Fünfteichen camp – under conditions even worse than Markstadt – he observed that most of his fellow prisoners had crossed an unimaginable threshold.
“We had ceased to be human, in the true sense of the word, long ago. We were instruments of skin and bones, which, more or less day in day out, fluently worked to a schedule which had been drilled into us.... Only the air-raid alarms tore us from our lethargy.”
Bornstein’s riveting and painful account of those nightmarish years is a valuable contribution to the corpus of Holocaust memoirs. The Long Night should serve as a reminder to readers that those who survived, and those who did not, are not forgotten.