GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Eighth-grade students and faculty at Ridgeview Elementary School had the opportunity to hear Holocaust Survivor Sonja Dubois speak about her journey to discovering her true identity.
At nearly 2 years old, Dubois, originally named Clara Van Thijn, was hidden away by her parents to protect her from the Nazis in 1942. Her parents left her in the care of a family friend named Dolf Henkes. She was later taken in by Dutch Christian couple Willem and Elisabeth van der Kaden. They relocated to the United States in 1952.
“My mother and daddy were brave enough to leave me behind,” said Dubois. “I was 21 months old. I mean, I can’t imagine leaving a baby or toddler behind. They did and I wasn’t sure that I would live even then, because there were lots of collaborators in Holland and in any country.
Nazis could never have done this by themselves. They had helpers, collaborators, everywhere.”
Dubois is known as a ‘hidden child’ of the Holocaust.
“I’m a hidden child, which means I’m the last generation that can interact with people,” said Dubois. “Meaning that from now on, it’s in the history books, but not a whole lot of it.”
She talked with students about her childhood with her adopted parents and how she started uncovering more about her Jewish roots at 60 years old.
She learned of when her parents died at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp and other facts about her family’s history.
Dubois believes she has a mission to keep the legacy of her family alive.
“If I weren’t here to speak, their names would mean nothing,” said Dubois. “They wouldn’t be recognized. They don’t have graves.”
Garrison Jones, is an eighth grader at Ridgeview Elementary. He said he’s been reading and studying about the Holocaust.
“I thought she had a very great story, and it just really put it into perspective how horrible things were,” said Jones. “And how strong she had to be to overcome that and then to share her story afterward. It’s just very impressive. And she’s a brilliant woman.”
Dubois wrote a book called, Finding Schifrah: The Journey of a Dutch Child Holocaust Survivor which was published in 2019. It’s about her life and the discoveries she made. She named the book after her Hebrew name, “Schifrah.”
“The book is all about how I lived and what happened later, my married life and lots of incidents about what I recall from that time,” said Dubois. “It’s strange, especially odors, smells bring me back to that period of time and I can relate and live that again.”
Dubois says her story is just one example of the many hidden children of the Holocaust. She also says she speaks for all the children from her hometown of Rotterdam, Netherlands who died during the war.
She showed the students a photo of when she visited the Jewish Child Monument in Rotterdam, which memorializes the 686 children from the town who died in the Holocaust.
“Racism is so real today and if we don’t learn from history, we repeat it,” said Dubois “And I’m afraid that’s what’s happening today. There are lots of anti-Semitic riots. People are getting damaged verbally and physically.”
She wants students to remember that fighting racism starts young.
“I want them to be very aware that racism starts right now, right around them,” said Dubois. “You know the kid that looks different, talks differently, that sits alone at the cafeteria. Reach out. Be a friend.”
“She really proved the point to be grateful for what you have,” said Jones. “And I feel like that resonated a lot with me. And you just need to be grateful because it could all be stripped away in a moment. It’s time. So, just be grateful for what you have and what you’re given.”
Jones encourages other students to learn about the Holocaust. He plans to read Dubois’ book to learn more about her life.
Dubois now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. She continues to speak to students about her journey to uncovering her heritage.