Sonja Dubois is one of our last firsthand links to the Holocaust. She is a member of a generation of European Jews that has been called the Hidden Children. These young children were given up by their parents in hope that they would be able to survive, even if their parents did not. Many of the hidden children assumed new identities; most never saw their parents again.
In 1942, Sonja’s parents were ordered to report to a train station for “re-settlement” to a holding camp in the Northeastern part of the Netherlands. In reality, it was nothing more than a stopover on their journey to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Sonja was 21 months old. Sonja: “As hard as it is to say this, I hope for early death; they went to the gas chambers sometime between August and December of 1942. So they were gassed in Auschwitz, along with the rest of my family – I’m the only survivor.”
Sonja’s only link to her lost family was an oil painting that she’s had since she was hidden away. It is a dark painting, full of greens, browns and dark hues. This signature is in black. Sonja had never known who made the painting, only that it had belonged to her family.
In 2000, she made contact with a distant cousin, whom she had never before known existed. When they met, she asked him about the painting. “I asked him if he knew anything about this painting; I told him it supposedly had belonged to my parents, and asked if he knew any details. And he told me ‘This is your daddy’s signature.’ So, he [her father] had been with me all along.”
Sonja’s father was an amateur painter, with ties to the Dutch artistic community. When he and his wife were ordered to report to the train station, they decided to leave their daughter with a family friend, a painter. At first he tried to find a safe place to hide Sonja; there were many Jewish children hidden in farms or country estates. But Sonja’s guardian was uncomfortable with the situations he was able to find and didn’t want to put Sonja in any further danger. So he began working with an underground agency to find foster parents for her.
Sonja’s foster mother was a Red Cross volunteer. She and her husband were unable to have biological children of their own, and had made it known that if there were any children who needed to be taken care of, they would be willing to take them in.
“We were really kind of the answer to each other’s prayers,” Sonja says.
Sonja was raised with no awareness of her Jewish heritage. It wasn’t until her foster family immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 that she was told of her parents sacrifice and her adoption by the only parents she’d ever known. “My parents died when they were 29 years old,” Sonja says. “They let me go to rescue me.”
It took a long time for Sonja to fully understand her parents’ sacrifice. “For years I didn’t think of it that way. I felt they should have taken a chance on life and hidden, as so many others did – unsuccessfully. It took my maturity to understand that this was a sacrifice for them. When I became a grandmother, when I saw my 2 year old grandson crying for his mommy – can you imagine giving a child up at that age?”
Sonja now understands the unreal choice her parents faced in 1942. “My parents didn’t stand a chance at that time and they knew it. They did the bravest thing on earth.”
It’s been only nine years since Sonja began sharing her story. “I’ve been trying to find myself for my whole life. It took a long time to even attempt to put the puzzle together. It’s a lonley story; and it’s painful.”
She partly made the decision to begin telling her story because she wanted to memorialize her birth family. “I’m the only way people know these folks existed; I’m the only person that can speak for their bravery.” But she also began sharing her message as a warning to be on guard the against racism, hatred and intolerance she sees every day. “The holocaust isn’t over,” she says. “Racism and prejudice are still real.”
Sonja focusses on reaching young people, and has had many classroom speaking engagements. “I want to encourage young people to take a stand everyday, in whatever way they can. I focus on what each person can do to counteract intolerant attitudes. There are many opportunities to make a difference. The Nazis got help everywhere they went; and silent bystanders became collaborators.”
And so Sonja tells her story to inspire a new generation of brave souls who will take a stand and renounce an attitude of apathy and impotent inaction. Her story must be told as part of the struggle to eradicate the spirit of Holocaust that threatens all people of good will.