In the book, Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, Michael Bornstein joins his daughter to tell the tragic and miraculous story of his family and their will to survive the evils of World War II. Michael Bornstein’s family lived in Zarki, Poland in 1939. In October of the same year, the the Jewish community was invaded by Nazi soldiers as World War II began rearing its horrendous, hateful head. Despite a heavy Gestapo and Nazi presence, Zarki would remain an open ghetto. (It is still remembered as being one of the more favorable ghettos to have resided, despite the unspeakable crimes witnessed by its inhabitants). Shortly after the invasion, Michael’s mamishu (mother) learned she was pregnant with him and he was born into the ghetto on May 2, 1940. What transpired over the next four years of Michael’s young life can only be told by the author himself. His family got separated time and again, but when life in the ghetto is all you know this is your norm. Ultimately forced into Auschwitz, Michael soon realized his family’s luck had run out. They could not survive this. Or could they?
This book serves as a powerful example of narrative nonfiction. Michael tells his story in such a profound, yet protected, way for his young audience, without losing any authenticity of the era or his life. As many of our students launch the year with some form of narrative writing–whether formal or informal–this book shows exactly why our personal stories must be shared.
Potential Craft Moves to Highlight:
- power of personal accounts
- embedding another language to connect to larger message (Yiddish terms are used consistently to highlight the family’s commitment to their faith; German terms are used when Nazis are talking to show how misplaced and misunderstood they were in the community)
- theme–migration, war, poverty, family, faith, marginalization, death, crime, power… (the list goes on)
In connection to bullet one, having students interview family members about powerful stories in their lives could serve as a brainstorming tool to pull in those deeper, more meaningful moments in our lives. It might look something like this:
- What different parts of the world is our family from?
- How do those places connect with my life today? Food? Clothing? Religion? Family traditions? Home? Music? Art?
- Why are these cultural components so important to our family?
- How do we keep our family history alive? How can I keep it alive through my narrative nonfiction writing?
The interview does not have to be long–remember, we’re just brainstorming at this point.
So often when our kids begin narrative writing they want to talk about winning a video game (likely Minecraft), their trip to the local amusement park, or that one time they got a great Christmas present. And we sigh. There has to be more. How am I going to get this child to see there’s more?
Additionally, we live in a society where our demographics are changing at a steady pace. If we want to know our neighbors, we have to listen to their stories. More importantly, if we want to know ourselves, we have to know our own. This is where understanding and empathy are birthed, and connections to others become meaningful and lasting. Culturally relevant teaching has never been more important, and how many of our students really know and understand their own history?
As I read this book, I could not help but think how much of this author’s young life has impacted every facet of his being as he’s grown into an adult. Certainly, our students are not likely to have stories as harrowing. But some will, and they can’t be ignored. Those who don’t still have important stories to tell. Connect with families to learn student stories through the interview builds vital relationships for the year and gets them involved in their child’s learning right away. More importantly, for our students it creates an outlet for writing to be connected to self-discovery. I can’t think of a more essential audience than that.
Two additional picture books that could serve as mentor text:
- Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruus (this text can connect thematically with migration, poverty, war, hardship, etc. and bring about meaningful cultural conversations connected to these themes. The story is told in Arabic and English, showing the power of bringing in another language as well).
- Mirror by Jeannie Baker (this text shows life in the Middle East on one side of the text, and in the U.S. on the other side. This helps kids see all the small day-to-day activities that create the culture we live in. As they start to think about stories they have connected to their culture, this can help them see all that culture entails).