As I approached the home of Irving and Miriam Borenstein in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, two things became clear: the pride they feel at being Jewish and their joy at living in America. On their front lawn are large American and Israeli flags with a plaque in front which reads:
Never forget the six million murdered in the Holocaust and the three thousand murdered on 9/11.
May G-d remember them for the good with the other righteous of the world.
Inside their home the theme continues; their walls are covered with pictures, souvenirs and memorabilia related to Israel.
Where did this sense of pride come from? Join me as we learn a little bit about Miriam and Irving’s backgrounds and hear their incredible stories.
Irving: I was born in America in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. It was like the “Yerushalyim of New York.” I went to yeshiva there and then to Harron High school. My father owned a shomer Shabbos grocery store. When I was 16 he passed away; my mother continued to run the store and at some point I began to take responsibility for it, but ultimately it wasn’t for me. I studied and excelled in electrical engineering, which helped me when I was in the military.
Miriam: I was born in Czechoslovakia in the Carpathian mountain region. I have been living in the states for 67 years. Carpathia became a hostile region to live in once the Hungarians took over. First, they put all the Jews in a ghetto. I was in a ghetto called Izah for 6 weeks before they transported us to Auschwitz.
Mr. Borenstein, when did you join the service?
I was drafted into the army when I was 18, like so many others. I could have easily gotten a 4-D (a deferment) since I was a rabbinical student in yeshiva at the time but I didn’t feel that was right.
Were you scared to join the army?
No. I was happy to go. I had no fear. My mother wasn’t too happy about it but I was a strong-minded kid and running the family grocery store was not for me.
What are your thoughts about those who avoided service due to religious observance?
I am a Zionist. I told people you cannot hide behind the Torah. In fact, the Torah demands that we go and help our fellow brethren.
What was your position in the military?
Luckily, I was not in man-to-man combat. I was involved in the anti-aircraft artillery outfit. Basically, I was a utility repair soldier.
Were you ever injured?
I was hurt badly when a car near me blew up; I was unconscious for a while. I was hospitalized for 5 months in London with a fractured skull and malfunctioning kidneys. Eventually I healed, and those of us who were feeling better were given office jobs, so the office clerks could go fight.
Did you experience any anti-Semitism in the military?
Not really. I am as strong as an ox and growing up in Brownsville you knew how to defend yourself. I recall one incident where a non-Jewish man and I were reaching for the same butter during mealtime and I got it first. He said, “Just like a (expletive) Jew!” I flipped over the table and that was the end of that.
Were you able to be observant in the army?
Not really. It was hard. I did manage to daven with tefillin every day. One day my captain was inspecting the barracks and I was standing in the corner engrossed in my davening. He asked a fellow soldier what I was doing and when they told him I was praying he said, “If anybody bothers him they are going to have to deal with me!”
What about keeping kosher and Shabbos?
Impossible. The only thing I could do was stay away from meats. As for Shabbos, that was out of the question. The first time I drove a car on Shabbos, I thought it was going to blow up. They did let me go home for the holidays when I was in basic training.
Were there other Jews stationed in your outfit?
It was a 25% Jewish outfit with mostly New Yorkers. This is maybe why anti-Semitism wasn’t so prevalent. I did have to tell one Southerner that Jews don’t have horns though!
Miriam, would you mind sharing some of your story with our readers?
As I said when the Germans came to Carpathia we were moved into a ghetto and then a short time later we were sent to Auschwitz. We had no idea what was coming. We were counted and separated by gender and then by age and health (the strong and the weak). I arrived with my mother and we were quickly separated. I later found out that she was selected by Dr. Mangele to go straight to the crematorium. I was in Auschwitz for 3 months before I was liberated and then shipped to a concentration camp near Landsburg, Germany.
How did you and your husband meet?
It was after Auschwitz in the DP camp in Munich. We met in June 1945, a month after I was liberated, and we were married on January 10, 1946. I actually came to the United States as a war bride, and spoke only Yiddish.
After the war, my husband was very active in the DP camps and tried to help survivors by giving lectures and advising them on what to do next, on how to go on with their lives. My roommates and I attended one of his lectures and later we began talking and talking and we just hit it off. People started commenting on our frequency of talking and it made me uncomfortable. I had been raised in an Orthodox home with Orthodox values about the separation of boys and girls. Then Irving was gone and I didn’t hear from him for six weeks. He had gone to London to try to find my father whom we had heard was there trying to earn a living since our family had been separated.
Irving, how did you find your future father-in-law?
I went from shteible to shteible looking for him in London. Someone told me that there is an old man with a beard living in a bombed out house crying that he left his wife and daughter in Europe, so I went to visit him, and sure enough it was Miriam’s father. I also managed to track down her sister living in Belgium.
Where were the two of you married?
Irving: I needed permission from President Eisenhower to propose to Miriam since she was a civilian. In the end the mayor of the town of Furth married us but it was a civil ceremony not under a chuppa. I returned to my outfit the next day and my comrades were shocked to see me. They asked, “didn’t you just get married, why are you not with your wife?!” They did not understand that according to Jewish law we were not married.
Your wife mentioned that you held lectures for survivors, what were they about?
I had the opportunity to meet with many survivors. I had made arrangements with the Chief Rabbi of London to distribute siddurim in camps. We didn’t call them displaced persons camp; we called them Ohr Chadash camp.
I kept on telling them to believe and have hope. Somehow they must forget and that I knew it would be rough. Many of the survivors I met looked up to Stalin and wanted to return to Russia. I tried to tell them to go to Palestine.
What do you say to those who lost their faith after all they had suffered?
I don’t judge. I once saw three Jews beating up another Jew (just like Moshe Rabbeinu in the Chumash). I ran to stop the fight, but after they informed me that this man was a Kapo helping the Germans, all I could do was walk away. I cannot judge.
Irving, was there ever a time when you were angry at G-d?
No. I got older when I saw the camps. I was too angry with the Germans to be angry at G-d.
Miriam, have you ever been back to your hometown?
No. I was sent to a DP camp in Munich. I did join the March of the Living in 1994. I had no connection to any of my relatives for a long time. I was in my 20’s when I came to America and I felt alone and with no direction because I didn’t know anybody. Thank G-d for my husband’s sister who was like a blood sister to me and showed me the ropes.
How do your kids feel about your experiences?
Irving: They are proud. My daughter in fact, wrote her college thesis on my war experience.
Miriam: Stories remain stories. Nobody can escape the hardships of life. People often told us that we should publish a book based on our life, but I feel that we all have stories.
Irving, do you keep in touch with any other veterans?
No. Most were not Shomer Shabbos, but I am a member of the Jewish War Veterans.
What message would you give to your readers?
Irving: Never give up and always have bitachon. I am proud to be from shevet Levi and I think all Jews should be proud of their heritage.
Miriam: Even though you experience challenges in life, you still need to have hope and have feelings for others.
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