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Knoxville woman's parents killed at Auschwitz; survived as toddler given to family friend

Sonja DuBois was lucky to survive the Holocaust as a toddler in Holland. Her parents gave her to a friend before they were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Sonja DuBois of Knoxville turned down a free trip to what's left of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. 

The world is marking the 76th anniversary of its liberation.

DuBois is glad people are paying tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and the Allied forces that fought to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II.  But she felt it would be too difficult to visit the concentration camp where her parents, grandparents, and other relatives were systematically murdered due to their religion.

"I think it would be too close for comfort. I don't want to see the ovens. The whole family just about went [to Auschwitz]," said DuBois.

DuBois has reminders of a couple of childhoods in Holland. There's the childhood she can remember with her foster parents who named her Sonja and raised her as a Christian.  Then there are the keepsakes from her Jewish biological parents who named her Clara and loved her enough to let her go in 1942.

Credit: WBIR
Photo of Holocaust survivor Sonja DuBois as a young girl in Holland.

"What mother and daddy did was left me behind, hoping that I would live. When I was turned over to 'mom and pop,' what I called my foster parents, I was just 22 months old.  My mother and daddy gave me to a friend who was an artist and he gave me to mom and pop.  Mother and daddy were on the first transport from Rotterdam to a camp known as the 'waiting room' on the way to Auschwitz," said DuBois.

DuBois said her foster parents loved her and raised her as their own, but she had a hunch from a very young age she was not their biological child.

"I knew from the time I was probably three or four. Children have intuition. It was a burden and a risk they took to take me.  Had they been found out, their lives could have been snuffed out like that.  But nobody told me until I was 12 years old that mother and daddy had died in a concentration camp. And we didn't talk about it after that, because it was not like I could remember anything about them," said DuBois.

Credit: WBIR
Holocaust survivor Sonja DuBois notes the details of a painting by her father who was killed at Auschwitz.

Her family moved to the United States in 1952.  Unbeknownst to DuBois until recent years, the family in New Jersey that sponsored them during the immigration process were her biological relatives.

For DuBois, her biological parents were merely names on a piece of paper. She had no photographs.

Around the turn of the century, DuBois received a phone call from someone in Israel claiming to be a cousin. She was initially skeptical, but followed through to reconnect with distant relatives.

When she was around 60 years old, DuBois first saw a photograph of her mother and father.

Credit: WBIR
A photo of Sonja DuBois's biological parents sits beside a menorah at her home in Knoxville.

"This picture is of them before they were married. This was the first time they came alive for me. An artist friend took this small picture and created this [larger painting]. It really confirms how daddy loved her. Look at the look on his face. It is adoring. And I finally know I look like my mother. That's a great feeling, too," said DuBois.

DuBois knows her father died with the first two months of arriving at Auschwitz, either in August or September of 1942. She is unsure how long her mother survived.

"I have read so much about it, I pray they died soon and did not have to suffer in such a terrible place," said DuBois.

Credit: WBIR
Pastel drawing of Sonja DuBois's biological parents from Holland who were murdered at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

DuBois now has three childhood names. Along with Clara and Sonja, there's the Hebrew name Schifra.  She has tried to reconnect with her childhood roots and her family's faith.  DuBois chronicled her genealogical journey in a self-published book, "Finding Schifra: The Journey of a Dutch Holocaust Child Survivor."

DuBois wants others to remember the childhood she could not.  She believes history can repeat itself in the life of another child if people are indifferent to racism.

"The Holocaust was a slaughter. It is the biggest example of what happens when racism goes unchecked. There are people who grow up being told it was not real or it was exaggerated.  We have to make sure people know the truth. And young people need to know they can make a difference by doing something and telling others when they see something wrong," said DuBois.

DuBois speaks to educational groups and children about her experience. She can be reached via email at ronson1@att.net.

RELATED: Oct. 8, 2019 - Holocaust survivor Sonja DuBois to speak on life after genocide

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