If you visit often, then you know, the ladies of WOW always stop by with the most amazing female authors. Well today is no different. Robyn is going to introduce us to another talented writer. So I ask that you help me give them a warm welcome to CMash Reads!
Sonia Korn-Grimani 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 inFrance, and is also frequently invited to share her Holocaust experiences as a guest speaker in high schools, universities, synagogues and churches.
On the Power of Love and Forgiveness
In the spring of 1961, shortly after we moved to Malaysia, UNESCO called my husband John to Paris. The prospect of visiting my mother, giving her time with baby Renee—her new grand-daughter, and sightseeing around Paris was too great a temptation to refuse. Those days in Paris are perhaps the happiest days of my life, walking around arm-in-arm with Mother.
We sit down at a café, and she tells me that she is planning to stay in Germany for a few months. Would Renee and I go with her? I want to be with her, but the thought of confronting our past of persecution and anguish, our lost youth, our lost family, makes me very anxious. So much is lost there—wouldn’t it be better to just leave it be?
Something in me wanted to go if only for mother’s sake. So we all went for a few days to Wuppertal-Elberfeld, the city from which we had to flee twenty-two years earlier, after my brother, mother and I were declared enemies of the German State. We walked the sunny streets and picnicked on potato-herring and meat salads in the parks, the parks which I remember well, before we were banned from them for being Jewish. We visit our street and our building—the last address in Germany before we were forced to leave. The building has aged, appearing grey and sad.
I have no desire to enter and do not wish to be confronted with our ex-Nazi neighbors, some of whom now remember their treatment of us altogether differently from how we experienced it. War and time have a way of altering memory. Some neighbors had now justified their treatment of Jews in general, and of us in particular to themselves, but now, twenty-two years later, the only person I would like to see is Frau Rohland, the only one of our neighbors who stayed friends with us until the end, who comforted us when mother was arrested; who had slipped us butter sandwiches that would sustain us all night long on our arduous journey on foot to the Belgian border. Alas, her family was away on vacation.
But we are close to Belgium, and I want to visit the orphanage where I had under a false identity for the second half of the war. Perhaps it was having my own children that made me want to revisit one more part of my past, to find closure with one more part of my life. I wanted to visit the one person whom I felt I could never forgive, Madame J.
She was the proprietress of the orphanage. I was 11 when I arrived with my brother at her doorstep, and Madame J took us in, but only after my mother had begged on her knees and agreed to have the resistance pay her twice times the amount she usually took in foodstuffs. Surely the separation from my mother was difficult, but Madame J.’s spartan guardianship of the children in her care did not make the adjustment any easier.
But there was another part of the story that I found out after almost two years of living at the orphanage. I had discovered that Madame J. hoarded food given to her by the resistance that was supposed to go for the orphan’s care—she was hiding the food in her bedroom and selling it on the black market, probably for a very hefty profit.
I remember when she coolly met my eyes after I had discovered her secret. Even though I was only thirteen at the time, I understood her game, and I also understood the dire consequences if I were to reveal her secret—all of us orphans hiding under her care would have been exposed. I concealed my anger and kept my emotions in check, but never in my life had I felt such revulsion, such sadness. We are all so hungry and some of us suffering from malnutrition, which we thought was because we were living during wartime, but there were boxes and boxes of food in her room, just sitting there!
All of these emotions were swirling in my head as baby Renee and I took the train to Ottignies, and made our way to the orphanage to see Madame J. I needed, more than anything, to find peace with what happened within myself, to find closure within my heart.
As I approach the orphanage, I remember my first arrival in 1942 as a young naive girl; I feel a similar anxiety, but for other reasons. All is too familiar. The sights of the past dredge up the feelings of the past.
I knock, just as I had knocked then, and am greeted by a smiling face and trembling hands. Madame J. sweeps me into her arms and seems truly moved to see me again.
“Come into my parlor, my darling Sonia. So nice that you have not forgotten me who was once your godmother! Come and sit down.”
I sit on the very same couch where my mother had sat during her first interview, that is, until she knelt to beg Madame J. to take my brother and me in and save our lives. I recoil at the thought and lean back into the couch for support.
“Would you like some tea or coffee?” Madame J. inquires pleasantly, oblivious to the pain I am feeling.
In a daze, I accept her offer; glad to have her occupied while I try to sort out my recollections, without being overpowered by their weight. Madame J. serves me on very delicate china. Her cakes are delicious.
She brings out photo albums and proudly shows me pictures of us. “How I enjoyed having you and the other Jewish children, all so refined, so bright, so obedient—particularly you, Sonia.”
I then remember how she had shown me albums of the Spanish War orphans who preceded us at Le Joli Coin, and how she had compared us unfavorably to them, offering them as intangible standard of an excellence we could not possibly attain.
I listen to her reluctantly. This is 1961! I feel like shouting. So much has happened in the intervening years and yet you are still fixated on the past. I remain mute.
She breaks into my reverie. “Would you like to visit the home? I am now taking care of a group of young delinquent, homeless boys.”
I follow her and see the familiar navy-blue uniformed, thin and pale bodies of her new charges. They look as forlorn as we had looked so many years before. Although the war is not even in their memories, it seems clear that Madame J. has not changed her tactics in dealing with this new group of children.
It took me years of reflection after this visit to come to terms with my desire to forgive her, and not being able to. I remember watching Renee and my son Anthony, now an infant, as they played in the dappled sun of the coconut tree in our yard in Kuala Lumpur.
“She did save your life and at great personal risk, Sonia,” argued my husband John. “You might have perished during the war if it weren’t for her, so you need to recognize her for that.” And I do feel lucky to have survived the war at all.
When I think back to my discovery of the boxes in her room—I keenly remember my shock and certainty that she was hoarding food for her personal gain. As an adult, I cannot be certain. I try to be fair. Perhaps she used the contents, which were unavailable on the open market, to buy silence from people who would have otherwise exposed us.
And I try to live up to the nickname given to me at the orphanage: La Tourterelle Généreuse, the generous dove. “Yes, we went hungry. No, she was not a nurturing guardian. But she saved more than 20 children and several adults. Looking at it now, as an adult, I feel gratitude towards Madame J.”
I would never wish the experiences of living under her care in wartime, or the harrowing and constricted life we had before, on anyone. Yet Madame J. was an honorable person who despite the danger saved many lives. And just perhaps, the very trials of my youth forged that strength of character which has allowed me to sing—both literally and metaphorically—in my adult life.
And for the closure in my heart, I feel grateful. I watch Renee and Anthony giggle and play on the blanket in the warm sunshine, and I feel alive and happy in the present. Whatever has happened to you in your past for better or for worse, this has made you who are and gives you the strength to do what you are destined to do. When we harness the energy from love and not from anger and resentment or things we cannot change, we are capable of doing great things.
ABOUT THE BOOK
At the age of eight, little Sonia Korn is declared an enemy of theGermanState. She and her family are given a grim option; either find a way to disappear, or be rounded up and sent to certain death. After a perilous escape to the Belgian border, and becoming caught in the chaos and carnage of war-torn France and Belgium, Sonia finds that she must give up everything she knows and loves just to survive. 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. A heart-wrenching and poignant memoir, by internationally renowned singer Sonia Korn-Grimani.
THANKS TO AUTHOR, SONIA KORN-GRIMANI, I HAVE ONE (1) SIGNED
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