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Holocaust survivor hidden in plain sight

Holocaust survivor hidden in plain sight
Holocaust survivor hidden in plain sight | Holocaust survivor hidden in plain sight
Staff Reporter
As a child, Sonja DuBois was hidden from the Nazis — in plain sight.
She is a survivor — a survivor of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II.
Mrs. DuBois, 72, a native of the Netherlands who now lives in Knoxville, was among the thousands of Jewish children turned over to relative strangers by desperate parents in the hope the children’s lives would be spared from Nazi persecution.
She captivated a group of Lake Road Elementary School eighth-graders with her story Tuesday afternoon, telling them she was “honored” to share with them during this week’s observance of National Days of Remembrance for the Holocaust.
She told the students the hatred that led to the Holocaust came about because one evil person — Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler — decided the Jewish race was not necessary.
“I am a survivor of that terrible genocide,” she said.
Her Jewish parents, how-ever, died at Auschwitz concentration camp.
World War II broke out in September 1939 and, just over a year later, Mrs. DuBois was born Clara Van Thyn on Oct. 19, 1940, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which had been invaded by German troops in 1940. Her hometown was strategically located on a waterway and the Nazis destroyed the city early on, leaving residents isolated in a city ravaged by war.
Transportation was taken away, newspapers were controlled by the Nazis, and Jews in her hometown were forced to register and put yellow stars on the outside of their clothing to identify them.
Jews in Europe were targeted for death as the Nazis implemented genocide on an unprecedented scale. By the thousands, they were told to report to train stations on the false promise there would be jobs for them.
“Little did they know what that meant,” Mrs. DuBois said.
In reality, millions of Jews were separated from their families and carried away to their deaths in concentration camps or gas chambers.
There were resistance fighters who helped the Jews, but there were also collaborators who turned people in to the Nazis, according to Mrs. DuBois.
When she was about 2 years old, her Jewish parents boarded a train — and made the difficult decision to leave their daughter behind with an artist friend in the hope her life would be spared.
“That’s when I became a hidden child,” she said.
It turned out to be a decision that saved her life.
Through the resistance and underground connections, a non-Jewish couple took in young Clara and her name was changed to Sonja. Those foster parents, who lived in a town next to Rotterdam, became her “mom and pop.”
Food was scarce for the Dutch and people were being robbed of their possessions, but her foster parents did their best to keep their new young charge fed and safe as they tried to make her life as normal as possible under the circumstances.
She attended preschool, but whenever people began to ask too many questions about her or when those questions became uncomfortable, Mrs. DuBois’ foster parents would move her across town. She recalled they moved three times as they and other resistance fighters worked to keep her alive.
“I was hidden in the open,” she said, adding that it took a village to keep her safe.
Mrs. DuBois said she doesn’t remember a lot about her early years, but the things she does remember are “very poignant.”
For example, the high leather boots some women find fashionable nowadays remind her of the tall black boots worn by Nazi soldiers — which would have been about eye-level for her when she was a child. The sound created by tap shoes also reminds her of the clicking sound made by the soldiers’ boots.
Some of her strongest memories involve smells, and a certain musty scent triggers a particular memory. Her foster mom had a friend who was a policeman and his extra coat was cut into a lovely cape for her to wear as a child. The plaid wool lining had a musty smell when it got wet, such as the musty smell that might be found among old books in a used book store.
“It’s very endearing,” she said.
In May 1945, liberation came for the young Jewish girl who had been safely hidden away. Shortly before Mrs. DuBois’ fifth birthday, her part of the Netherlands was liberated by Canadian troops.
“Soldiers came in and we were freed,” she said.
Troops, including those from the United States, had also begun liberating thousands of prisoners from concentration camps.
Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin in April 1945, and German armed forces surrendered unconditionally in the West on May 7, 1945, and in the East on May 9. Allied and Soviet forces proclaimed May 8, 1945, as Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day).
Mrs. DuBois said while it was cause for celebration, there was not immediate change after so many years of war. She recalled supplies were dropped into the area and one of her favorite items as a child was the Bazooka gum.
The war officially ended Sept. 2, 1945, after Japan surrendered.
In 1947, Mrs. DuBois and her foster parents received a visit from one of her aunts who had been saved and whose oldest daughter had worked with the underground. They had young Clara’s papers — including her birth certificate — and knew the fate of her parents and other family members who never returned from the concentration camps.
She was also given a precious piece of jewelry her mother had worn and she said she now wears it on very important occasions — like her visit to Lake Road Elementary.
Life in the U.S.
Mrs. DuBois came with her foster parents to the United States when she was 12 years old.
“I loved being an American teenager,” she said.
When she arrived in the states, she spoke just three words of English. Other children helped the pre-teen Sonja learn and teachers taught her the language through the use of workbooks.
Before she immigrated to the U.S. in 1952, though, she had to obtain a passport and, having never been legally adopted, had to practice signing her given name of Clara Van Thyn for that purpose. At that time, her “pop” shared how her parents had died in the Holocaust and told how he and his wife had taken her in.
“‘You are ours now,’ they told me,” she said.
Mrs. DuBois admitted she often wondered what her mother looked like and whether she had inherited any of her traits. She came to realize over the years how difficult it must have been for her parents to give away their child, but they took the precaution in a time when their own futures were so uncertain.
Years later, she was reunited with the artist friend her parents had left her with before they boarded the train that took them away. The man had wondered about the child’s fate, and a photo and story published in a newspaper overseas made its way to Mrs. DuBois. She and her husband, Ron, went to Holland to meet the man, Dolph Henkes, and his family.
“He helped save my life,” she said, recalling he was part of the resistance.
She was also later contacted by a woman in Israel who believed they were cousins. They eventually connected and established a relationship, with the cousin coming to Tennessee to visit Mrs. DuBois and share some precious family memories.
Mrs. DuBois said she and her husband, who accompanied her Tuesday on the visit to Obion County, have been married for 50 years. They met in New York City and have made their home in Knoxville for many years now.
She showed the Lake Road students several photos from her childhood, as well as a more recent photo of her five grandchildren, adding, “If I’m not enough proof that Hitler was unsuccessful …”
When asked if she is still Jewish, she told the Lake Road students she is “a Jewish Christian.” Her foster family was Christian and that’s how she was raised, but she said she celebrates both Jewish and Christian holy days.
Her Jewish name is “Schifrah,” which is biblical.
As she embraces her heritage, Mrs. DuBois said her purpose in sharing her story is to honor her parents by talking about their bravery, as well as to keep their story alive so history does not repeat itself. She is vigilant in her efforts.
Along the way, she has learned there is always something in life for which to be thankful.
“Thank you, Lord, for life,” she said.
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by email at
Published in The Messenger 4.11.13

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