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THE VETERAN NEXT DOOR
Stories from World War II Vol. 1
By RANDALL BAXTER
AuthorHouse Copyright © 2013 Randall Baxter
All rights reserved.
The Hidden Children
Before diving into the experiences of the hidden children in World War II, I have something I want to discuss. If you have ever read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, you will be introduced to the fact that the Jewish population has been called "The Chosen People."
History has not always treated the Jews as well as the Old Testament would have them treated. Over time, the Jews have been a cursed and rejected race in many societies, especially in Germany. Jews have been accused of being responsible for the economic inferiority of many non-Jewish societies. These feelings have existed for generations, especially in Europe. Periodically these feelings of hate have culminated in the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses, and the taking of their lives. The elimination of these Jews and the total destruction of their way of life can be traced to the time of the Protestant revolutions of Martin Luther, the Spanish Inquisition, and again in the German Nazi hate pogroms. Knowing this will help you understand the plight of Europe's "hidden children" during World War II.
It also helps to set the stage!
Blitzkrieg: A swift and devastating attack perfected by the German military in early World War II. Used against Poland in the late summer of 1939, and in the spring of 1940 against Holland. This devastating military maneuver was used in Rotterdam with so much devastation that the Netherlands, in which Holland is a part, feared for the cities of Amsterdam and The Hague.
Many Jews had left Germany and had gone to the Netherlands when the persecutions began, and Holland had a large concentration of Jews, both citizens and immigrants. Holland had no substantial military and very little terrain that could be used for defense.
There was a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Netherlands, and the German military knew that there was easier access to France if the Netherlands was out of the way. The ferocious blitzkrieg on Rotterdam forced the Netherlands into submission in less than a week. It was either submission or destruction.
Suddenly, the Jews who had escaped Germany by going to the Netherlands, and the Jews who were citizens had very little chance of survival. Where could they go? Nazis to the East, German-occupied Belgium to the south, and open sea to the north and west.
They received a German-imposed civilian government working against them, and the nations of the world were swamped with applications for immigration, including the United States. Immigration policies around the globe were resistant to allowing Jews with no visible means of support coming into their countries, and the Nazis were systematically robbing them of all their assets.
Dutch citizens who spoke out against the oppression were themselves viciously oppressed. The Nazis convinced prominent Jews that cooperation was better than resistance. Gradually the noose got tighter and tighter. The Jews who cooperated were transported out of the Netherlands and most did not survive.
How did the Germans get this done?
It was like mining for gold by sifting. When The Netherlands surrendered, all government officials had to prove there were no Jews in their immediate families. The Jews were eliminated from all government jobs. Jewish businesses had to be registered with the new government. Jewish households were separated from society.
Failure of Jews to cooperate was severely punished. Ghettos were established to concentrate the Jewish population. Jewish children were barred from public schools. Access to their own assets was blocked, forced labor camps were established, public transportation prohibited, telephones forbidden, property confiscated, then deportation.
With deportation you needed concentration camps and in The Netherlands, these were known as Westerbork and Vught. Once there, the Jews were shipped primarily to Auschwitz.
Randy: As you can see, the Jewish people have been persecuted by different people all over Europe and indeed all over the world-sometimes even in America. Our story today is about how that affected the life of a two-year-old girl.
Her name today is Sonja DuBois. In 1942, her parents called her Clara Van Thyn. She has an amazing story to tell.
Let's do this. Sonja, tell me about this picture right here. Who is this?
Sonja: This is me after my parents had given me away and I was living with my foster parents, William and Elizabeth Van Der Kaden.
Randy: Tell me why you needed foster parents.
Sonja: When I was less than two years old, living in the Netherlands, my parents were deported to Westerbork at first, which was a holding camp for Jewish citizens.
Randy: That was 1942? You said your parents were deported; what happened to them?
Sonja: Well, that same year, 1942, they ended up in Auschwitz and became two of the six million that were killed. [Part of the "Final Solution," a.k.a. the Holocaust!]
Randy: I'm so sorry you lost your parents at that age.
Sonja: You know, I used to say "lost." There's no such thing. They were killed. So were my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. I'm the only one left.
Randy: Your grandparents, too?
Sonja: And my cousins.
Randy: How did you get away?
Sonja: How did I get away? It was a miracle. My parents, I'll never know if they thought about this for a long time or made an on-the-spot decision to leave me behind. It was a friend of Daddy's, who was also an artist, who helped me get safely to my foster parents. I didn't find out that connection until 1999 to 2000, actually. They decided to leave me behind, which had to be the greatest sacrifice parents could make. They were put on a train in Rotterdam, heading for Auschwitz.
Randy: So, they had the choice?
[Note to Reader: What would you have done? Would you have held on to your daughter because of your love for her and taken her with you—to her death? Or would you have looked for a way to hand her off to safety?
Think of that two-year-old in your life, if you are lucky enough to have one. How innocent, trusting, and dependent, and how much you love them. Doesn't it make you angry that the Nazis were forcing people to make that choice?]
Sonja: While they were at the train station, they had the choice to hold on to me or hand me off to safety. I don't know if it was, you know, smuggled, or what the situation was, except it was before they got to Westerbork, which then became their jail until they ended up in Auschwitz. It's at the northeast border, not far from Germany. From Westerbork, the philosophy was as I understand it now, they would gather as many people as they could in one family, and then deport them all together.
What I know is that all of my relatives died except one in Auschwitz, and my paternal grandmother ended up in Sobibor, and that was a killing camp. Everybody knew that. In Westerbork, there was still an excuse in which to believe. Auschwitz, there was hope, it was a concentration camp, so folks were chosen to go to the right or to the left. And I have been reading for years now about what happened in that camp, and it's hard to say, to understand, but I hoped for an early death for my parents.
Randy: For your parents?
Sonja: Yes. When they arrived at Auschwitz, my hopes are that they came and were sent to the left, which meant they were going to the gas chambers.
Randy: Hmm. Do you know for a fact if they were—if it was the left or right? Do you know if "sent to the left" meant gas chambers?
Sonja: Yes. At Westerbork, we found the train they went on. The Nazis kept unbelievable records.
Randy: Oh yeah, meticulous records.
Sonja: And I am told that all of the people on that whole train, none of those people lived.
Randy: How did you wind up with these foster parents?
Sonja: I was given to a good friend of Daddy's. He was quite a well-known artist in Holland. His name was Dolf Henkes. He was single, took me home to his sister and brother where he lived all his life. From there, he found an underground connection. I still don't know which agency I ended up in, but eventually, they contacted my foster parents who today I call Mom and Pop. See, I have two sets of parents: Mother and Daddy, they're the ones that gave me up; and Mom and Pop, who risked their lives to keep me safe. I'm known as a hidden child, except I wasn't hidden in a closet. I was way out in the open all my life. During World War II, I was one of the hidden children.
When things got too hot, when people asked questions we couldn't or wouldn't answer, we just moved to the other end of town. Imagine that happening today. Here we are, east side of Knoxville. Could you move to Karns [about fifteen miles] and disappear? Not a chance. But the lack of communication technology protected us; not everyone had telephones. [Sonja began laughing] Cell phones, of course, were not even dreamed of yet. So, that's what helped keep me safe. We moved three times in those three years.
Randy: So, who would be asking questions?
Sonja: Oh, the Nazi soldiers that we encountered would look at the color of my hair. And I went to a preschool class where I'm sitting in the front row, my first school picture, the only brunette. People were asking questions everywhere.
Randy: Sonja Dubois was one of the lucky children during this era. Many of the Jewish children were forced to live in sewers and in the streets. Just feeling the rays of sunlight through the manhole covers was a treasure to enjoy.
Randy: [to the audience] Sonja Dubois's real name was Clara Van Thyn, sometimes spelled T-i-j-n-e. She was born on October 19, 1940, but she celebrated her birthday in August, because that was the day she became the child of William and Elizabeth Van Der Kaden. Sonja's mission in life, and also the mission of the Hidden Children Foundation, is to educate all people of the consequences of bigotry and hatred, so never again will anyone suffer the atrocity, the injustice, and the agony of the Holocaust.
From 1939 to 1945, all Jewish children in Nazi-occupied countries were hunted and threatened with death. To survive, they had to go into hiding or keep their true identity secret. Many were left to fend for themselves, wandering in search of food and shelter. They hid in the convents, the orphanages, the barns, the woods, the basements, and yeah, just like you heard, they even lived in the sewers.
Randy: Tell me more about the hidden children.
Sonja: We were a group of youngsters who had parents who had made the ultimate sacrifice, by giving their children away instead of keeping them with them, thinking that they could keep us safer by giving us up.
Randy: So, your parents gave you away to non-Jewish families?
Sonja: Yes, others gave their children to orphanages, Catholic hiding places. I had a friend or two that survived that way. There were a lot of older children—older, I'm saying eight, nine, and ten years old—who roamed the streets, who lived in sewers. There are terrible stories. That's why my life was glorious in comparison to them. I lived with one family the whole time. My parents didn't come back; they were killed, and the Van Der Kadens kept me as their own. When a relative who was married to a Christian and stayed safe, came to find me, all this information came out—I learned my true name.
Randy: When were you born?
Sonja: October 19, 1940. But, my birthday celebration during the war was in August because that's when I came to Mom and Pop, figuring it was a new life for them. They wanted a child very badly, and it was a new life for them. They didn't have any children of their own—never did—and it meant life for me. There was no way I was going to survive had I been taken to Auschwitz, and for a long time, I didn't consider myself as a survivor because life was good. I have a lot of emotional scars because my own foster parents decided to hide my identity from me, even after the war.
Randy: It was to protect you. You understand that now.
Sonja: During the war, yes. It became such, you know, a habit—why would I want to know anything about my heritage? Why? Because we all do.
Randy: Of course you do when you're older, but if you're six or seven years old—
Sonja: No, that was dangerous for them to do that.
Randy: Yeah, and it would have just put you all in danger.
Sonja: It would have blown the whole mission.
Randy: It would have hurt who you were, or it would have hurt your personal identity as a child.
Sonja: Right. Oh, I don't blame anybody for that. It's just ... it just took me until 1999 to find out that yes, I do have a relative.
Randy: Oh. 1999?
Sonja: Yes, 1999. My distant cousin called, and here we have modern communication that made this happen. On an answering machine!
Twice! She left a message: "I think we may be cousins." Well, she didn't leave a telephone number, which was fine—I knew she was going to return the call. There'd been so many hoaxes, anyhow. So, the third time, sure enough, we connected.
We talked, and after about five minutes I knew that, yes, she was.
Randy: How'd you know?
Sonja: She knew about an oddity. Daddy had a disfigured ear shell, and I'd seen one picture of them only, ever, and that came just before we came to the States. We didn't talk about that yet. But, as a youngster, when I looked at that picture, that's who I saw: this man with a strange ear, and these were my parents.
Randy: Your father had a strange ear?
Sonja: Yeah, which makes me hopeful in the fact that they were sent to the left, because—
Randy: Because he had a defect?
Sonja: Absolutely correct, because he had a defect. We talked about pictures, and I had only seen a picture of Daddy at that time. And so, my cousin came to Knoxville, Tennessee. I picked her up at the airport and we talked for the weekend. The following year, my husband and I went to see her family, and the amazing thing happened: I spoke to the only person ever that knew Daddy as a person. You know, he's been a name on a piece of paper. I'm the only proof he existed.
Randy: [to the audience] You know, listening to Sonja Dubois talk took me back to the start of this chapter when I told you about the way people were feeling in 1543, about the Jewish people. Then we went forward four hundred years to find that the Nazis were persecuting the Jews and all their families. Killing these children and hunting them down because they were Jewish. Then we go another seventy years and we find that one of those children that had been persecuted in World War II finally runs into a relative and makes a connection to the only person who knew her father. When they're talking on the phone, she hears in the background sounds of the recent bombing of Tel Aviv in December of 2012. This family has been persecuted because they were Jewish for over five hundred years. Maybe more!
Can you imagine being given away to another set of parents when you were two years old, and not remembering anything about your original parents, or understanding why they would give you away? Knowing that, as a child, the very fact that if you saw men marching with black boots, would get you to a point where you would never want to wear black boots again? Later on in your life, after you're full grown, you learn the story and have a phone call where somebody said, "Hey, I think I'm a relative of yours, and I think I have something that you're going to want to see." You make friends with them, and you see all the bonds, and then they show you a picture of your long-lost parents? [Sonya did not want to release the picture of her parents for personal reasons.]
Sonja: Isn't it fantastic?
Randy: So, that's the first picture you had ever seen.
Sonja: Yes. It's grandfathered too much to get it lightened. I tried to get some Photoshopping done.
Randy: I bet that just gave you chills, didn't it?
Sonja: [laughs] You notice where it is? It's in my purse. I tell the students that I teach, or that I speak with, that they all know by the time they are twelve years old who they look like. Grandparents pull out the pictures to show their friends, and their friends say, "Oh, he looks just like his mother, or his brother!" All my life, I wondered who I looked like, and when I first got the picture, I didn't see it. This is before they are married, so, they're only twenty-eight years old. So, I had to look at pictures of myself when I was about thirty-eight to forty, and that's when I knew who I looked like.
Randy: And this was in 2000, when you got this?
Sonja: When I was sixty. I'm seventy-two now. Yeah.
Randy: Who had this picture?
Sonja: It was in a wedding movie.
Randy: Ohhh ...
Sonja: And when they stopped every frame, we ended up being able to get their picture. I carry it with me all the time—everywhere.
Randy: We need to get you to seal it up better.
Sonja: Oh, I change it up all the time. This thing gets dirty, and I have others. I have copies of it.
Randy: Oh okay, that's just the one you carry.
Sonja: I have a bigger one at home, and I have this little shrine in my living room—that's what we call it! It has this picture; it has a picture of my cousin and I; and it has another one that was found in Canada and a picture of all of us.
Excerpted from THE VETERAN NEXT DOOR by RANDALL BAXTER. Copyright © 2013 Randall Baxter. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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