France’s new Prime Minister is the daughter of a stateless Auschwitz survivor
Joseph Borne with his father and two elder brothers before their deportation to Auschwitz. © Les Amis de la Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Déportation

French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne's childhood was marked by the suicide of her father in 1972, when she was just 11 years old. Joseph Borne, whose original name was Bornstein, was a Jewish resistance fighter of Polish origin who survived the hell of Auschwitz but never quite recovered from the experience.

When President Emmanuel Macron picked Élisabeth Borne as France’s new prime minister earlier this month, not too many French people knew about the 61-year-old career bureaucrat’s family background.

Borne, who became France’s first female prime minister since the 1990s, has been discreet about her private life and her family heritage, which was marked by the horrors of World War II.

Her father Joseph, a Jewish resistance fighter, was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944. While he was freed a year later, the ghosts of the past – the atrocities at Auschwitz, the loss of loved ones – continued to haunt him. Joseph Borne committed suicide when his daughter was only 11 years old.

"It wasn't always easy. I lost my father when I was very young. And so, we ended up with my mother, who had two daughters and did not have much of an income," she told French channel C8 in a 2021 interview.

Borne traces her family’s roots to Poland. Her grandfather Zelig Bornstein – who perished in the camps along with two of his sons – fled anti-Semitism in the 1920s for Belgium, where he found work with a diamond dealer. Joseph was born in Antwerp in 1925 under the surname Bornstein. He was one of four boys, Léon born in 1921, Isaac in 1923 and Albert in 1930.

When World War II broke out, the family was forced into exile once again, fleeing to southern France where they sought refuge in Toulouse, Montauban, and then in Nîmes. The Bornstein boys’ mother, Anna, died aged 36.

Joining the French Jewish Resistance

In August 1942, Joseph and his brother Isaac were arrested for the first time as stateless Jews and taken to the Camp de Rivesaltes, a transit and internment centre in southern France. "Zelig went to Rivesaltes and managed to bribe a guard, who let Isaac and Joseph 'escape'. They returned to Nîmes at the end of 1942 and decided to join the resistance," Jean-Paul Boré, vice-president of AFMD (Amis de la Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Déportation), told the Cultea website.

Meanwhile Albert, the youngest child, was also arrested. He was deported with Convoy 51 on March 6, 1943, to the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland, where he was murdered.

The surviving three Bornstein brothers shortened the family name to Borne and joined the resistance in France. Their mission was to transport men and women from the eastern French city of Grenoble to the scrublands in the southern Tarn region to join the French Jewish Resistance led by one of the group's founders, Abraham Polonski, according to French weekly Le Point.

But on December 24, 1943, Zelig and his three sons – Joseph, Isaac and Albert – were arrested by the Gestapo in Grenoble. "We had false papers, and when the police stormed into the apartment at 10pm, they made us drop our pants...They were looking for Jews. They were bent on getting people to denounce others. We were also subjected to what was called 'the bathtub' at that time. It's a board which they tipped into the water. It was a very, very hard interrogation," Isaac told the French Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA) in recorded testimony.

‘That is your parents, who are going to heaven’

The family was then transferred to Drancy, near Paris, before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Convoy 66 on January 20, 1944.

There they discovered hell. "There were rows of SS and Sonderkommando people,” said Isaac, referring to the Sonderkommando groups of Jewish prisoners forced to perform a variety of duties in the Nazi camp system. “There were dogs, and the screams: 'Raus, raus, raus' ['Out, out, out,' in German]. We had to get out quickly. It was already snowing. And that's when my brother Joseph and I were selected" to work, recounted Isaac. Zelig and Albert were taken directly to the gas chamber.

Joseph and Isaac went to work in Buna-Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, one of the three large camps in the vast prison system. "When we arrived, the ashes were flying up into the air. When it was windy and the chimneys were burning, it smelled foul everywhere. And the elders, the elders who were in the camp, said to us, 'You see, that is your parents who are going to heaven. They are burning."

For a year, the Borne brothers managed to survive thanks, in particular, to their spirit of solidarity, according to Isaac. "We always shared everything, he with me and I with him, because I watched him like milk on the boil.”

In early 1945, as the Soviet Red Army advanced from the east, the Borne brothers were evacuated further west to the Buchenwald camp, from which they were liberated by the US military on April 11, 1945.

After the war, when the brothers returned to France, Isaac reconnected with Odette, a young woman he had met in Nice. Joseph meanwhile recovered in Calvados, in the northern Normandy region, where he met Marguerite Lescene, a pharmacist. He converted to Christianity and married her. The couple had two daughters, including Elisabeth, who was born in 1961.

But Joseph remained traumatised by his wartime experience. According to Isaac, his younger brother could not bear to talk about those years. In 1972, aged only 47, Joseph committed suicide by jumping out of a window. While the reasons for the suicide are not known, Isaac believed Joseph suffered from a sort of guilt after having lost his father and two of his brothers in the camps. "Guilty of what? We don't always know. But I believe that each person, on losing loved ones, always says to him- or herself, even today: 'I should have, would have, if only I had known...'"

Borne, who was 11 when her father died, became a “Pupil of the Nation” – a status in France given to the children of victims of war, terrorist attacks or those who have perished while serving the country. This meant she received a full scholarship for her education, which she pursued with honors.

In a 2015 interview with French daily Libération, Borne confided that she thought about her father when, as a public servant, she presented naturalization certificates to new French citizens. "That I, the daughter of a stateless refugee, who only became French in 1950, should be doing this, says something about integration."

(This is a translation of the original in French.)