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Holocaust survivor tells students to speak out against racism

Brandon Paykamian • Feb 26, 2020 at 8:00 PM

Editor’s Note: As a clarification, the Auschwitz concentration camp was located in Poland but was operated by Nazi Germany.

After spending years learning about her past, Sonja DuBois of Knoxville has continued teaching others about her experiences as a child Holocaust survivor and the lessons learned from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

DuBois was born as Clara van Thijn in Rotterdam, Netherlands on Oct. 19, 1940. Less than two years later, her parents were deported to Poland’s Auschwitz concentration camp, where they were murdered along with her other relatives, who joined 6 million other Jewish victims sent to camps across Nazi-occupied Europe.

When her parents were taken away, DuBois — who also holds the Hebrew name “Schifrah” — was adopted and raised by a Dutch foster family, first in the Netherlands and then in the United States.

On Wednesday, DuBois visited Indian Trail Intermediate School to speak to students about how she grew up and survived the Nazi occupation.

She told students about how silence and complicity helped escalate the oppression and genocide. DuBois said it “grew because of indifference.”

“‘It wasn’t happening to me, so why should I care?’ That’s what people were thinking,” she said. “My story is just an example of what happens when good people do nothing. They stand by and do nothing, or often, they become part of the problem. They become collaborators.”

DuBois told students “it’s their responsibility” to speak out against racism when they encounter it to stop future injustices.

The genocide not only took her family, but it also took some of her sense of self. For years, DuBois knew little about her biological family and true identity.

DuBois wrote about her lifelong search for her identity in her book, “Finding Schifrah: The Journey of a Dutch Holocaust Child Survivor.”

At Wednesday's event, she brought copies of her book and learned that some Indian Trail students were also reading other books about child Holocaust survivors, including Allan Zullo’s “Escape: Children of the Holocaust.”

“You saw one of those kids today,” she said. “I’m not in that book, but I am here to tell you that I survived.”

DuBois visited Indian Trail as part of a three-day speaking tour sponsored by the Tennessee Holocaust Commission. On Monday, she visited Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett High schools. On Tuesday, she spoke to members of the Rotary Club in Johnson City, and on Wednesday, she also visited St. Mary’s School and East Tennessee State University.

“My story is an example of what happens when racism gets bad, and we all have a responsibility to reduce that,” she said. “So every time I talk, there’s an audience that knows now what responsibilities we all have.”

DuBois said she’s concerned about the recent resurgence of ultra-nationalism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism throughout the western world.

“This is growing, and I’m very concerned about it. It’s another reason we should remind people what racism can do,” she said.

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