Isaac Bornstein, the eldest of the nine children of Abraham and Rachel, was born in Kovel, Volhyn (Ukraine) in 1899. A statistician and economist in pre-World War II Poland, he edited The Economic Life and published trade journals in Yiddish and Polish. Bornstein began working for JDC Warsaw in the 1930s. During World War II, he was one of the four JDC leaders who were given the title “The Directors” by the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto.
In early 1940, Bornstein met with Nazi officials in Krakow who were reordering the Jewish communal organizations. He helped established the JSS (Jüdische Soziale Selbsthilfe, Jewish Self-Help Society) based in Krakow, which provided aid to Jewish communities in the General-Gouvernment (the central part of occupied Poland). The JSS was the only Jewish welfare organization in Poland that was officially recognized by the Nazi authorities. Despite efforts by the Germans to interfere with the activities of the JSS, JDC representatives succeeded for a time in maintaining a measure of control over the organization.
During 1940-1941, Bornstein traveled to Jewish communities in Poland to distribute JDC funds and to make sure that the funds were distributed properly. During these trips, he often gave counsel in settling disputes. In December 1940, the Nazis made a determined – but unsuccessful – effort to close down the JDC office in Warsaw. That attempt to close the Warsaw office prompted Bornstein to open and head a JDC office in Krakow, where for about a year he worked valiantly to help his fellow Jews. After the United States entry into the war in December 1941, American organizations could no longer operate legally in Poland and the JDC offices in Warsaw and Krakow had to close officially. The JDC staff in Warsaw succeeded in continuing their activities underground. In Krakow, however, JDC was no longer able to maintain its control over the local JSS officials and Bornstein was forced to leave.
At the end of August 1942, in the midst of the mass deportations from Warsaw, Bornstein, his wife Chana, and their children Nina (b. 1926) and Michael (b. 1931) found refuge in Czestochowa with the help of some Polish acquaintances. His wife and children were taken in by a prominent Jewish family. Bornstein continued on to Sosnowiec-Bedzin, the region known as Eastern-Upper Silesia, where the Judenrat was headed by Moshe Merin. Merin believed that if Jews continued working in German controlled factories producing goods desperately needed by the German army, some of them would escape deportation. Bornstein, as an economist, agreed that Jewish productivity might save some of the remaining Jews of Sosnowiec-Bedzin.
Bornstein’s wife and children, who had remained in Czestochowa, were arrested, deported, and murdered by the Nazis. Bornstein, meanwhile, had received a Paraguayan passport sent to him by a Jewish organization in Switzerland. The passport entitled him to be transferred to a special internment camp for holders of foreign passports. Moshe Merin wanted Bornstein to remain in Sosnowiec-Bedzin and convinced him to stay, promising to protect him from the Germans. Relying on Merin’s promises, Bornstein passed up the opportunity to leave.
The remaining Jews in Sosnowiec-Bedzin were deported in August 1943. Shortly after the deportation, Bornstein was taken by the SS to the outskirts of the city and murdered together with other leaders of the Jewish community. Another account states that Bornstein was deported and murdered in a death camp. Bornstein lost his life at the hands of the Nazis, after doing his utmost to save and improve the lives of the suffering Jews of Poland.
Baron, Rochale – niece of Isaac Bornstein, Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov Ihud, e-mail communications, April and May 2009.
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Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943 – Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
JDC Archives, New York.