This is the story of Bernhard and Erla Bornstein and their family during the Holocaust.
Bernhard (Simche) Bornstein was born in Kielce, Poland on August 8, 1891. (Regina) Erla Bornstein (née Glücksman) was born in Cologne, Germany on February 16, 1895.
In 1914, during World War I, Germany invaded the Russian Empire, which included Poland. Bernhard was caught up in the deportation of large numbers of Polish men who were sent to work as laborers in the Humboldt factory in Cologne. There he met Erla Glücksman who was working in her father’s bakery. When the war ended in 1918, Erla and Bernhard married and had four children: Anna born March 23, 1920; Ella born January 12, 1922; Walter born May 29, 1924; and Harry (Hersch) born February 22, 1933.
Just prior to Germany invading Poland at the start of World War II, in October of 1938 Bernhard and his father were deported from Cologne back to Poland along with many other Polish citizens. Bernhard was sent to Lodz, where his brother lived. The family received one postcard from Bernhard, but never heard from him again. It is believed that he died in the Warsaw Ghetto sometime between 1940 and 1945.
Meanwhile, Erla was left with four children ranging in age from 5 to 18. As things worsened for the Jews under Nazi control in Cologne, Erla tried to escape Germany with her family. With some money from his mother, Walter left for Holland in January of 1939, taking a train to the border. He was only 14 at the time. The border with Holland was guarded by the German army, but with his blond hair he was able to walk right across. Erla and the three remaining children fled to Brussels. First Erla, Ella, and Harry left in one group, followed by Anna in a second group with other family members. Walter joined the family in Brussels at the beginning of May 1940. One week later Germany invaded Belgium.
Walter was taken by the Germans to work as a slave laborer along the coast of France building the “Atlantic Wall,” a fortress meant to prevent an invasion by the Allies. While moving from one labor camp to another he was able to escape and make his way back to Brussels to look for his mother and siblings. When he got to Brussels they were nowhere to be found. Walter joined the Resistance, survived the war, and emigrated to Rochester, NY. He did not find out what happened to his mother and siblings until 1951.
Shortly after Walter left Brussels, the Nazis came to the apartment where Erla was living with the remaining three children and ordered that Anna and Ella were to leave immediately for the assembly camp in Maline, halfway between Brussels and Antwerp. They were told they were being rounded up to work, but that was just a pretext. This was the last Erla heard of her daughters. They were ultimately sent to Auschwitz and killed in the gas chambers. When the girls were taken, Erla brought Harry to a Catholic orphanage and found a Gentile family willing to take her on as a servant.
Records at Yad Vashem show that Ella Bornstein from Koeln (Cologne), Germany, born in 1922 to Simche and Erla Bornstein was murdered at Auschwitz. There are no records for Anna or for Bernhard.
Erla was reunited with Harry, and they continued to live in Brussels after the war. In May of 1946 Walter was given passage to New York City by a Jewish welfare organization. After a few days there, he found the chaos, bustle, and dense population to be too much. Someone suggested that he move to Rochester, a smaller city in upstate New York with a good university and Jewish community. In 1951 the Red Cross notified Walter that his mother and brother were alive and living in Brussels. He was able to bring them both to Rochester and assist them in starting a new life. Erla died on July 29, 1970, was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, and her gravestone includes cenotaphs (monuments to someone buried elsewhere) for her husband and two daughters.
The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, Yad Vashem Website, https://yvng.yadvashem.org
Bornstein, Walter. The Bornstein Identity: The Life and Times of Walter Bornstein. Personal History Productions, 2015.
The grave markers shown below are the two sides of one stone. On one side are listed Erla and Bernhard Bornstein, while on the other side are their two daughters, Anna and Ella. Only Erla has a birth and death date (1895-1970), while the other three have “Martyred 1940 ~ 1945” after their names. These dates reflect the time after they were rounded up by the Nazis up to the end of World War II. No exact date of death is known for Bernhard, Anna, or Ella. Near the top of each side, a pair of lions is shown holding the Ten Commandments. The Lion of Judah is a common Jewish symbol representing the tribe of Judah, from which King David descended. The Ner Tamid (eternal light) above the Ten Commandments symbolizes the menorah (seven branched candlestick) that burned continuously in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.