For many years, Michael Bornstein, one of the youngest prisoners liberated from Auschwitz, at age four, was reticent about telling his survival story, even among his immediate family. But the discovery of a photograph of himself as a boy distorted in the hands of Holocaust deniers spurred Bornstein and daughter Debbie Bornstein Holinstat to set the record straight. Their middle grade memoir, Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, brings together Michael’s first-person recollections and interviews with fellow survivors. The Bornsteins spoke with PW about the process of remembering and reconstructing a traumatic past, and the urgency of documenting the Holocaust for future generations.

Why did you feel compelled to share your story at this time?

Michael: Holocaust survivors are getting older and I think the story needs to be told. My daughter Debbie and I were searching for my photo and found a message from the Deniers Club.

Debbie: The Holocaust Revisionist Forum used my father’s photo to imply that Jews were liars when they said that children were killed on arrival [at Auschwitz]. They used the photo to show how healthy kids were at liberation.

Michael: When I saw that, I slammed my hand down. It’s ridiculous to make comments like that. Over one million people were killed in Auschwitz alone. But I guess they have an audience. The other reason is that my children and grandchildren implored me to talk about it more. When I came to the U.S., I could hardly speak English, and I had a tattoo, and I looked odd. Now my kids want to know more. I have four kids and 11 grandkids, and they all encouraged me to go on.

Debbie: He didn’t talk about it when he got here. He could’ve spoken about it when my siblings and I were growing up. I think he wanted to shelter me from the world’s atrocities. I think in some ways it was easier to forget.

Michael: My mother had a saying, “gam zeh ya’avor,” this too shall pass. Whenever things are bad we look forward to the future.

What was it like collaborating as father and daughter on such a personal and painful testimony?

Michael: Debbie is a fantastic writer. Between Debbie and my wife Judy and me, we found things from diaries, and translations in Hebrew, from relatives and friends. And it was a very good experience. One of the important things I found was information about my father. My father was president of the Judenrat—and was selected by the Nazis and the Jewish people to represent them. Though it was sometimes a very negative position, my father used it to save people. He set up soup kitchens. He was a very good man.

Debbie: It was very difficult to have these conversations with my dad and to see him struggle to find the words, and sometimes the memories. At the end, we’re both very happy we did this. At some moments, he had concerns—that putting out a book like this would make us a target for Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitism. But now the story is added to the record permanently. And we can’t forget, or history is bound to repeat.

How did the limitations of memory color your writing?

Debbie: There were places where I had to take some license to imagine how a conversation happened. Luckily we had enough pieces to put together the story of my father’s survival. My father had filmed my grandmother at the very end of her life talking about her experience. And we found writings, Hebrew essays, of what happened in the town of Żarki [in Poland] where they lived. We had them translated. They gave incredible detail of what happened to my father’s family—his family was prominent in the community. My father missed the death march because he was too sick to march. It was difficult. Sometimes it was me telling my father what had happened to him. Then he was able to fill in the gaps.

Michael: My mother told a story of what happened at Auschwitz. The normal survival rate for children was about two weeks. But I managed to survive. One reason was my mother. In the children’s bunk, the older children were also starving. They took my bread away. My mother came into my bunk, giving me some of her bread and soup. But she was beaten over the head. She showed us the marks on her forehead. There were other instances. When the Nazis came into Żarki, they had a whole family dig a grave. Then they had them huddle together and shot them and put them in the grave. It’s startling to imagine, but it happened.

Is there an appropriate age to introduce the history of the Holocaust to young people?

Debbie: I’m the mother of three kids. And this is the first time I’ve written a book. I had to trust Macmillan and the incredible people at FSG. And they felt it was suitable for middle grade readers. Kids need to hear about this when they’re young. They should be shocked and horrified, and it should be incomprehensible to a certain extent. They should never forget. I’ve since encouraged friends to show the book to their kids. It opens up difficult but important conversations. My son was 10 when I started writing. I used him as a sounding board to make sure the words were digestible for middle grade readers, but also that the concepts were digestible. That also makes it a quick, fluid, and digestible read for adults.

Michael: Especially with the current politics going on, and the alternative right, the book is very timely. Adults seem as interested as children in the message and the information.

Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-374-30571-0