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:
Irving and Miriam
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.
The Borensteins in Germany after the war.
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.
In the DP camp in 1945. Irving and Miriam are on the far right.
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!