Saturday, July 21, 2012

The hidden Dutch child

     A little more than a dozen years ago, Bea was visiting my parents' house in Shreveport when my dad handed a slip of paper on which was written: Clara Van Thyn, Knoxville, Tenn.
     How my dad had this name was a mystery to us. But we lived in Knoxville then, and after Bea returned, we tried to find this person. No luck.
The young Sonja
     A few months later, I got a call from a woman in Knoxville who said she was Sonja Dubois, she was Dutch, and her name when she was born was ...Clara Van Thyn.
     But that was merely the start of the story. We would soon hear the rest.
     Sonja had found us in Knoxville because her husband, Ron, looked in the phone book and searched for Van Thyns.
     At about the same time, my sister had received a call from a man in Toronto. He said he was Leo Van Thyn, he was from Amsterdam, he was doing a genealogy on the Van Thyn family -- he also had corresponded with my parents -- and he thought we might be cousins.
     Turns out that Sonja and Leo also had connected a couple of years earlier -- thanks to the Internet.
     So the mystery that puzzled us was that my dad hadn't connected that Clara Van Thyn -- a name he'd gotten from Leo -- was the same person as Sonja Dubois.  
     The Holocaust was a key part of our connection. What makes Sonja's story special is that she was  a Hidden Child of World War II. She is a Holocaust survivor, but in a different way from my parents.
     It is a fascinating story, and here is a brief version.
     Clara was the only child of Mauritz and Sophie Van Thyn, who lived in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. She was 21 months old in 1942 when the Germans rounding up Jewish people, ordered her parents to board a train headed for ... who knew where.
     Before boarding that train, the Van Thyns made a decision that would save Clara's life. They turned their daughter over to an artist friend and neighbor, Dolf Henkes, a non-Jew.
Cousins: Leo Van Thyn, left; Sonja Dubois, center, and me
 (photo taken in November 2000, Knoxville, Tenn.)
       Eventually, Dolf found foster parents -- also non-Jewish -- for the toddler, Willem and Elizabeth Van der Kaden. They forever would be "Pop" and "Mom" to the girl whose name was changed to Sonja.
      She was dark-haired, so she stood out among the more fair, mostly blond Dutch kids. The Van der Kadens, moved to a suburb, Schiedam, to escape Rotterdam, to be less conspicuous.
     It worked; they were never betrayed; the war ended, life went on; Sonja was raised in a Christian home, in Dutch schools. But in 1952, the Van der Kadens decided to immigrate to the United States, to New Jersey.
     It was at that point, when Sonja was told the real story, that her real parents had died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
     She grew up with this knowledge. It haunted her, but she never searched it out.
     She and Ron married in 1962 -- it's 50 years this year -- and had two daughters (and now five grandchildren -- "the little people," as Sonja loves to call them) and, through several moves, settled in Knoxville. They became deeply involved in the Presbyterian church.
     When we met in 2000, Sonja was still reluctant to discuss her long-ago past, her Jewish heritage, with people in Knoxville, with people in her church. She was still working through anger with her parents and her foster parents, who had moved to Johnson City, Tenn. -- an hour east from Knoxville. "Mom" was alive; "Pop" had died five years earlier.
     Sonja did not want to -- for lack of a better word -- betray "Mom's" trust or the faith of her church and its people by talking about her Jewish side in public.
     (Her story, however, had appeared in print -- in Rotterdam in 1985 -- in an article entitled, "Waar is Clara toch gebleven?" Rough translation: Whatever happened to Clara? The source for that story was the artist, Dolf Henkes.)
     Meanwhile, she and Ron had found a distant cousin, Bev, on the Internet by researching Sonja's family name on her mother's side. Then a search for the name "Van Thyn" turned up a note from Leo in Canada, explaining his genealogical project and asking for any information on possible family members.
     So Sonja found Leo, Leo found my folks and Elsa and then me. After Bea and I met Ron and Sonja, and heard her story, we all got together -- with my parents -- for Thanksgiving 2000. It was quite a gathering of Van Thyns in Knoxville.
     Once "Mom's" health declined, Sonja began making her story public in Knoxville, began making speaking appearances. Perhaps my mother's experience as a Holocaust education speaker for many years was an influence; I'd like to think so. But it also took encouragement from Ron, Leo, Bea and me. 
     She now is a regular visitor to schools in the Greater Knoxville area, and she enjoys that role. She has a power-point presentation of graphics and photos -- some of her as a girl in Holland, one of her parents, several of "Mom" and "Pop" -- and her speaking engagements have broadened, area-wise, through the Tennessee  Holocaust Commission.
     "It was hard at first," she told me this week, "but it soothed me. It became healing to pay homage to my family."
     She's talked of her resentment at being given away and being adopted, but now she'll say this:
      “My parents didn't stand a chance at that time and they knew it. They did the bravest thing on earth."
      Leo Van Thyn's story and mine are similar in many ways. We were born in the same year in Amsterdam, both sets of parents were Holocaust survivors, we both loved sports and remember the same teams from those days in the 1950s, and his family came to Canada the year after we came to the U.S.
      He grew up in the Toronto area, was a school teacher for 30 years, coached girls soccer for 13 years, loves words and language (slightly different from our English, though), and can write e-mails even longer than mine.
      He is a Blue Jays/Maple Leafs fan, bless him, but is a fan of many American sports, and we've educated him on LSU football.
      Carol and Leo have been married only a bit longer than Bea and I have, so they're almost at 36 years. They have kept the Jewish faith and traditions; they have three kids and three young grandchildren, and here is one fantastic common thread: We each have daughters named Rachel.
      Their Rachel Van Thyn is a rabbinical student in New York City; our Rachel is now Rachel Smith, wife and mother and middle-school media (library) specialist.
      Through his research, Leo has found that we indeed are cousins, although it takes a few generations for the connection.
      We also share this: We consider Sonja -- Clara, if you will -- a cousin, part of the family, and we admire the Hidden Child who came from shadows to tell her story.
      For more on Sonja Dubois, I recommend this blog piece by a Knoxville-area writer:


  1. Beautiful story. Have you ever heard my fathers story? He actually wrote a small book about his experience during the war. Also my Mothers story is interesting. However, she doesn't like to talk about it. We have tried to encourage her to write it down, or record it, but to no avail. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  2. That's an amazing story. Are Leo and Sonja related to you? Or is Van Thyn a common Dutch last name?

  3. She giving a talk, I'm sitting listening to it right now in Rotterdam.