HMDT Blog: The power of words to heal and harm

This blog has been written for HMDT by Noemie Bornstein Lopian, daughter of Ernst Bornstein, a survivor of the Holocaust.

HMDT Blog: The power of words to heal and harm

Words linger forever. Words have the power to sustain a person psychologically even when little can be done to alleviate one’s physical suffering. The power of words to both heal and harm is a recurring theme in the memoirs of Ernst Israel Bornstein which chronicle his remarkable survival from seven Nazi labour and death camps. I have my own deeply personal and linguistic connection to the book because Ernst was my father and I painstakingly translated his book, The Long Night, from German into English. My purpose has been to ensure that his remarkably lucid and dispassionate account of the Holocaust is accessible to a new global audience.

The original publication, Die Lange Nacht, had featured on our family bookshelf in Munich, where I grew up. My father, who qualified as a dentist after the war, dedicated himself to serving patients of every faith and background and was an active leader in the Jewish community. Ahead of his time, he organised remembrance activities in the 50s, 60s and 70s when the public, and many within the Jewish community, lacked the appetite to confront the past. As a young girl I was discouraged from reading the book’s contents. My dad died prematurely, due to a heart condition contracted during five years of extreme deprivation and stress in the camps, and so my emotional resistance to engaging with his work continued into my adulthood. I had to summon up previously untapped reserves of strength to immerse myself so deeply in his first-hand testimony of camp atrocities. The new translation has been described by veteran broadcaster, Jonathan Dimbleby, as a ‘terrifying personal account of an unspeakable clinical horror, all the more powerful for being told with remarkable self-restraint.’ I was fastidious in ensuring the translation was faithful to the original text. Ernst’s unadorned style conveys his message more powerfully than any emotive language could. The facts speak for themselves.

The story behind Ernst’s decision to turn from medical trainee to autobiographical scribe starts with a formative conversation he had with a young patient. She asked him if it was true that there had been concentration camps where Jews had been gassed. He informed her of his own experience and the fate of his parents and grandparents - of an extended family of 72 at the start of the war, by its conclusion only six had survived. Deeply moved, she said that she believed him. He was so troubled that a democratically educated post-war youth could believe that the bloody era of the Nazis was an invention of propaganda, that he committed to playing his part in shattering these illusions. He owed his parents who were gassed in Auschwitz, the truth. He owed his little, funny, impulsive brother and delicate little sister who were murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the truth.

I have picked up the mantle by translating his story and have just launched Holocaust Matters, an interactive website which enables students, historians and family researchers to explore excerpts from the book by location, topics and universal themes. Like others, I believe the digital realm will ensure the historical details and moral lessons of The Long Night reach a new audience. The book has been given a new lease of life through the addition of historically relevant archive photography and video testimonies. We will work with Holocaust education organisations this year to develop learning resources for the classroom and the general public. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 is: The power of words. Using the website we have developed, I have collected some of my father’s thoughts on the subject of the power of words:


Whilst the Nazis could deprive inmates physically, they were unable to take Ernst’s soul which was sustained by the parting words of advice and wisdom from his dear father, Usher:

‘You have your whole life in front of you’ he said, ‘every morning your future can be renewed.’…READ MORE

The support of non-Jews in the camp system was rare but saved my father’s life. He remained eternally grateful to an engineer overseeing his work in Märkstadt forced labour camp. Meister Wilhelm Hermann, who was nominally a member of the Nazi labour front, performed many acts of bravery such as sharing food with him in breach of camp regulations. However, he was no less supported by Hermann’s humanity and words of encouragement. Ernst said: ‘I felt an inner satisfaction as I left the room after this conversation. I was strengthened by this human contact, sharing of trust, treatment and attention as a human being.’ My family has applied for Wilhelm Hermann to be recognised by Yad Vashem as a Righteous among the Nations.


Ernst talks of the power of the Jew’s holy language of prayer, Hebrew, to temporarily revive spirits even on the darkest days. His recollection of Yom Kippur prayers with the aid of fragments of a prayer book at Märkstadt camp in 1943 evoke tremendous emotion, pain and internal conflict.


Ernst was an academically-gifted young man who entered the camp system with the ability to speak Polish, Yiddish and German. To his advantage he had curried favour with a Jewish member of the camp hierarchy (a kapo) at Grünheide camp by translating the man’s love letters from Polish into German. This linguistic favour literally saved his life when he encountered the same kapo years later in Flossenbürg camp.


Sometimes words failed Ernst. They are unable to fully convey the depths of depravity and deprivation that he had witnessed. He was disturbed to the core when first encountering female concentration camp inmates. He uses the phrase ‘indescribable horror’, requiring the reader to fill in the gaps. Next time I reach for the throwaway phrase ‘indescribably awful’, this truly indescribable scene from The Long Night will give me pause for thought. Unfortunately, there is still a minority within public life who see fit to appropriate the language of the Holocaust to make inappropriate comparisons with present day events. Reading a survivor’s account should help such people understand what an abuse this is.


I wish the lessons from the Holocaust were not so pressing and relevant today. However, we are witnessing a polarisation of political debate and the rise of hate-fuelled politics. The UK’s Communities Secretary, Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, was so moved by The Long Night that he considers that ‘as first-hand memories of the Holocaust begin to fade, Ernst’s painful testimony becomes more important than ever. And it’s more important than ever that we heed his warning and learn from it.’

Whilst the original publication of Die Lange Nacht in German prevented it from reaching a global audience, I fervently hope that supporters of Holocaust Memorial Day will engage now with this powerful, hidden story and use the new, online reincarnation Holocaust Matters to share it far and wide.

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.