It’s my pleasure to introduce you to author Sonia Korn-Grimani as she visits blogdom on her WOW! Women on Writing Blog Tour with her haunting memoir, SONIA’S SONG.
This is her story of triumph over the devastation of her life during World War II as an eight-year-old "enemy of the state." Sonia lived through the ordeal and went on to become a singer on both radio and television, as well as French tutor to the Queen of Malaysia.
Sonia tells her tale with grace. Here’s a synopsis:
“I stand three feet six inches tall when I am declared an enemy of the German State…”
In 1939, little Sonia Korn and her family were given a grim option; either they must disappear, or they will be rounded up and sent to certain death. After a perilous escape to the Belgian border, after getting caught in the chaos and carnage of war-torn France and Belgium, Sonia lived with her family in the shadows, fleeing and hiding from persecution until she was placed in an orphanage in 1942. There she lived with more than 20 other Jewish children, disguised as Catholic orphans, and all kept near starvation by the corrupt proprietress.
Sonia forged triumph from these tragedies with unshakable tenacity and beguiling charm, a life chronicled in the new book SONIA’S SONG. From her humble beginnings of singing daily mass in the orphan choir, after the war Sonia became an international sensation of radio and television, singing to the delight of audiences throughout the world. Sonia became a champion of women’s rights, a French tutor to a Queen, and was named Chevalier and Officier by the French Government for her contributions to French culture. This is the complex true story of one girl, who rises from war's ashes to sing the songs of hope and love world-wide.
Sonia was born in Wuppertal, Germany in 1931, as Hitler began his rise to power and the world became increasingly horrific. Being from a Jewish family, Sonia, who at the time was seven years of age, was declared an enemy of the state.
In postwar world, the few survivors of Sonia's family were refused citizenship status, and told that they must leave the country. Sonia immigrated to Australia where she worked in radio, television, and in film, making full use of both her linguistic and her musical talents. She organized interpreting and translating services for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, began to travel the world, translating for the United Nations in the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Sonia’s television and radio programs made her a sensation, and by the 1960s, she was called upon by the Queen of Malaysia to tutor her in French. While French tutor to the Queen of Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, Sonia continued to appear regularly on television and radio, singing, edifying viewers on classical music and speaking on women’s rights.
Sonia earned her doctorate in French literature and the teaching of foreign languages, and directed a multi-cultural language program at UNESCO. With her husband John, and their children, Anthony and Renee, Sonia traveled and lived all over the world. She taught foreign languages at the university level, and performed frequently to the delight of audiences worldwide. In her album Cantos al Amor, Sonia sings in 16 languages.
In 1989, Dr. Korn-Grimani was knighted Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, and in 1996 she was decorated Officier des Palmes Académiques. These decorations were awarded in recognition of her lifelong dedication to and promotion of French culture and language.
Sonia continues to sing regularly at UNESCO events in France, and is also frequently invited to share her Holocaust experiences as a guest speaker in high schools, universities, synagogues and churches.
Two of Sonia’s editors, Sarah Beth Goncarova and Yary Hluchan, shares their favorite passages from SONIA’S SONG.
Sarah Beth: Sonia’s memoir unfolds itself subtlety, revealing layers of themes and meanings. It is not only a memoir of her life, but an eye-witness account of living through the war in Germany and Belgium. Throughout the book, we also see the tenacity of Sonia’s mother, the selfless courage with which she protected her children, the importance of the kindness of strangers, and above all the power of hope, love and forgiveness.
Yary: It’s a treat when a non-fiction narrative not only stands on its own as an engaging story, but also lends itself to nuanced reflection. You can enjoy this book on the surface level for the action and lives of the people involved, and enjoy it again for the insights it shows about human nature. We lived with this book for two years and read it many times during editing, and it never gets old.
Sarah Beth: We begin with a passage from “Thwarted at the Pass,” from Verse Two of Sonia’s Song. It is May 1940, and 8-year old Sonia and her family, after a close escape out of Brussels, and witnessing the massacre at Dunkirk, are stranded in France between Amiens and Arras. At this point they have been hiding in barns and living off of kitchen scraps that they beg from farmers for over two weeks, on the run from Nazi soldiers who seem to be always on their tail.
We soon grow accustomed to such cold receptions. The farmers, whose own provisions are meager, do not want the additional responsibility of caring for strangers. They don’t have food to offer and they direct us to other places where we are equally disdained. We have learned to expect such treatment, the Nazis have conditioned us to expect it. Perhaps by now, our status as victims shows plainly on our faces.
“Go back where you came from. The Germans are at our doors.”
“Your running is senseless. The Germans have food. Go and ask them.”
After Mother confides our family’s plight to one farmer’s wife, she scoffs derisively. “Jews? Well you speak German then, don’t you? Why don’t you ask the Germans for help? We don’t want your kind ‘round here.”
She slams the door in Mother’s face.
Just after this exchange, we see army trucks on the road, coming down the top of the hill. How easy it is for them to advance upon the roads we have traveled so laboriously.
“Advance units of the Wehrmacht.”
My mother thinks quickly, and then says to the group. “Do not run—you will bring attention to yourselves, and they will be on top of us.” She then storms off in the direction of the German trucks.
I watch in disbelief. What is she doing?
“Mother!” I yell.
She doesn’t hear me.
Sarah Beth: This is one of the many times we see Sonia’s mother’s incredible courage and strength throughout this book. She was in her late-twenties at the time, with a husband and two small children, forced into life-threatening situations. I ask myself, what would I have done in her situation? Would I have been able to think clearly in such danger?
Yary: I also wonder what I would do here. When I read this, just like little Sonia, I couldn’t believe what was happening. It’s easy to put yourself in the action when the book is written from a first-person perspective. Predicting what comes next is not so easy, for truth really is stranger than fiction.
Sarah Beth: This selection is from when Sonia’s first night after arriving at the orphanage in summer 1942. She is living under cover there with close to 30 other Jewish children, hiding in plain sight as Catholic orphans in occupied Belgium. Up until this point, Sonia and her family have lost everything they have known and loved, have been abandoned by their friends and neighbors, have been forced to live on the run for over 3 years, and Sonia doesn’t even know if she’ll see her mother and father again.
“Don’t be sad, Sonia.” Rosa says. “Just follow what the rest of us do and you’ll be alright.”
“It’s bedtime everyone,” Rehla announces.
We file into the dormitories. The beds are set up in two long rows, along the walls of the rooms.
“Sonia, why don’t you take the bed at the end, next to mine?” Rosa says, sweetly. “I’ll find you some sheets and a blanket. It’s better to be away from the window, because it gets so cold at night.”
I am grateful to Rosa and Maurice for their kindness.
I crawl onto the noisy, springy mattress, and numbness comes over me. My parents had been truthful and prepared me for our separation as best they could, but its full impact was impossible for me to face. As I lay in the quiet and dark, I hope that soon Mother and Monsieur Van Zeebroek will rescue us from this strange place.
My stomach grumbles. I realize I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast that morning. This is the first of many nights when we go to bed without dinner. My salty tears foretell a hunger of a different sort. My thoughts churn in my head that night as I try to sleep, semi-consciously dreaming of a modern-day Noah who adds us, another pair, to her collection of species to save from the deluge. We are the last aboard, before the floodwaters rise, joining the motley assortment of bedraggled and lost.
Yary: In the days leading up to this, we know that the separation from parents will be hard, but at least we and the family think the orphanage will be a welcoming refuge. Alas the bleak reality immediately asserts otherwise. I find the arrival and first day there particularly poignant.
Sarah Beth: It is interesting to note that the friendships created with Sonia and the other children in the orphanage have lasted over 70 years. Sonia still makes a point of calling them every week.
Sarah Beth: We wanted to include this passage from the chapter "The Discovery of Ali Baba's Cave," because it is truly a turning point in the book. Sonia has been living in the orphanage for about a year-and-a-half and she has just discovered that the proprietress of the orphanage has been hoarding boxes of food—food that was given by the resistance and meant for the children—while the children have been suffering from hunger and malnutrition.
I am immobilized, trying to understand and evaluate the full impact of this discovery. What does it all mean?
My heart pounds furiously and I feel myself gasping for air. In terror, I have a vision of Madame J. sneaking up behind me to check why I am so slow to return. When she sees the room through my eyes and realizes fully that I am numb with outrage, she begins stabbing me in the back, or perhaps worse yet, sending me to the cold, dirty, mouse-infested cellar for good, now that I know her secret. One horrifying image after another closes in on me, jumping out from the darkened walls of some perverted haunted house.
The seconds tick by, each feeling like hours, but she does not come. In a strange way, I feel contaminated, as though being in that room forces me to assume responsibility for her terrible secret.
Three to four minutes pass before I regain my composure and tear myself away from the scene. With legs trembling, I descend the staircase and return to the common room carrying Madame J.’s woolen jacket.
Madame J. stares coolly at me. I steadily meet her gaze. I play her cool game and say nothing of what I saw. I try to conceal my anger and keep my raging emotions in check, but my hands tremble and my eyes moisten with tears, which I blink away rapidly. So often I have been distressed by life’s events, but never have I felt such revulsion and, at the same time, sadness.
Yary: This is a moment of silent danger, where it’s not a man with a gun confronting us, but new knowledge that turns the world upside down and a situation that can change everything.
Sarah Beth: I think that it is in her reaction to her discovery that you see the depths of 13-year old Sonia’s understanding and maturity. As soon she sees the boxes of food, she understands that Madame J. has been hoarding and probably profiting off of the food meant for the children of the orphanage. Sonia understands the corruption and cruelty, but also understands the danger of the situation and the importance of keeping that information secret. If she exposes the proprietress, she and the other orphans could very well be exposed as well.
An intriguing look at SONIA’S SONG, which I will be reviewing on Thursday, Oct. 18. Thanks to Sonia and the good folks at WOW, at that time I will also be giving away a downloadable gift bag to one lucky visitor. The gift bag will include: an eBook copy of SONIA’S SONG (winner’s choice of either e-pub, mobi, or .pdf) and an iTunes download of Sonia’s music CD “Chansons de ma Vie: Songs of Love from Around the World.” The giveaway will be open internationally. Be sure to check back for further details and for my review.
For additional information on Sonia, her writing and her songs, visit her website at http://soniassong.claygrouse.com/.
Here is a clip from YouTube of one of Sonia’s beautiful songs, Tumbalalaika. Enjoy and thanks so much for stopping by today.