At the age of eight, little Sonia Korn is declared an enemy of the German State. 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.
Today, Sarah Beth Goncarova and Yary Hluchan, the two editors of Sonia Korn-Grimani’s haunting memoir Sonia’s Song, share with us some of their favorite passages from the book.
SB: It was a challenge to pick just a few; there are so many great passages to choose from. Perhaps we should start with the Christmas tree scene, where 7-year-old Sonia and her brother Heini are invited into their neighbor’s apartment. I should preface this by saying that at this point in the book it is Christmas Eve, 1938, and Sonia and Heini are two Jewish children living in Germany under the Nazi regime. By this point, all of their neighborhood friends and neighbors have abandoned them, except Frau Rohland, a woman who lives on the same floor of their building.
That Christmas Eve, as we are returning to our apartment, Frau Rohland quietly opens her door and beckons us in.
“I made some ginger cookies for you,” she whispers.
She smuggles my brother and me into her apartment. It is huge with three bedrooms and large windows, facing the street. The delicious aroma of pfeffernüssen, spiced ginger cookies, emanates from the kitchen.
I gasp. There, in the middle of the sitting room, sits a magnificent fir tree, nearly reaching the ceiling, draped with red ribbons and multi-colored balls and silvery tinsel. White wax candles nestle aglow on limbs.
I feel numb. How the candlelight, the festivity, the lovely aromas of ginger, nutmeg and fir, contrasted with the bleakness of our own apartment! Despite all we have been through up until then, we are still small children who would greatly enjoy the seasonal spirit if we were able to partake of it. Waves of self-pity sweep over both of us. Why must our family be deprived of everything most people take for granted: toys, sweets and chocolates? Instead, we have a series of prohibitions: no joy, no celebration, no noise, no music, no songs, no real food and no light. Unable to speak, to even say thank you for the cookies, Heini and I return, devastated, to the stark reality of our own undecorated apartment and the strains of our totally restricted lifestyle. Our darkness makes our world seem bleak, grey, sad and fearful. Our darkness is our attempt to fade into non-existence.
SB: What I love most about this passage is the stark contrast between the apartments. You can see the tree and the lights, you can smell the cookies baking in the oven. Then when you see the childrens’ reaction to the scene, it has a great impact on you as the reader—here are two children who are deprived of all the joys of life up to this point that they don’t even know they are missing it until they themselves see the contrast.
YH: This scene evokes scenes of traditional Christmas—the sort I imagine from historical dramas—in a wholly unexpected context. In a small section, Sonia shows the difference between her world and the majority’s tremendously well. You feel the unfairness, and feel for the children.
SB: This next passage, which comes from the chapter “The Stork” also creates a huge contrast in just a matter of a few sentences. You see Sonia’s sweet naïveté, musing on wanting a baby sister, one of the only times in the book that you see Sonia acting her age, and within a matter of sentences, she is suddenly thrust into horrible danger. We see what she sees through her eyes, and it is truly horrifying.
I have known for some time how babies arrive: a stork brings them. In order to prompt the stork to make a delivery to your family, you need to put a coin on the windowsill to attract the bird’s attention, and the rest will fall into place.
At seven, I am determined to have a sister, and ask my mother for a pfennig to leave in an appropriate spot. Mother and Frau Rohland chuckle to themselves about my innocent scheme. Neither has the heart to tell me that now even the stork usually shuns Jewish homes. Day after day I check, but to my great dismay, the coin remains and no baby ever materializes.
Soon, I become discouraged with the waiting. Then one day, a bright sunny day in November, restless from spending so much time indoors, I decide to retrieve the coin and sneak out for a special treat. The stork’s coin, still gleaming, catches my eye as it waits, untouched, in its habitual spot. The nearby Konditorei, the pastry shop, sells a local delicacy called a Schlagsahne—a mound of whipped cream served in a waffle cone. This is a favorite treat of mine, and I’ve gone without any treats for far too long. Impulsively, I leave our apartment alone, coin in hand, and go straight to the nearby Konditorei. A few minutes later, my purchase made, I am just about to savor it when I notice black smoke darkening the sky. People are running in the direction of a big fire. It is still early afternoon, and yet the sun now seems to have left the sky.
Impetuously, I decide to follow the crowd as it rushes to discover what is going on. The synagogue is burning and crowds of onlookers chant their approval in cadence with the lapping flames. “Juden sind unser Unglück. Juden Raus, Weg damit!—The Jews are our misfortune, Jews out, get away from here!” they scream, clapping their hands rhythmically.
In a matter of seconds, I see more than enough to grasp exactly what is happening. Yet I stand there, mouth agape, unable to react or move from the scene. My cone of whipped cream falls to the pavement. The cream spreads as fast as the sounds of hatred fill the air.
SB: This is one of the most important passages of the book, not only because here is an eye-witness account of Kristallnacht, but also you can see what real danger they were in by remaining in Germany as long as they did. So much of the book the family is waiting, biding their time—it is easy to forget what serious peril they were in.
YH: I enjoy this chapter for a few reasons. To start with is the simple pleasure of learning tidbits of old German & Jewish popular culture—the coin, the Konditorei and the treats therein. We’re completely drawn into a child’s world of daydreams and innocent pleasures. Then it turns on a penny to a picture of grotesque ugliness. This section, to me, is a metaphor of how some were caught by surprise by the cruelty of the Nazis and the destructive force of their followers—though that is only my interpretation of this real-life scene.
SB: We wanted to include this passage from the chapter “Hidden Cargo” because it is one of the most suspenseful chapters in the book. When we first read Sonia’s manuscript, this entire chapter was just a sentence, mostly because it was so painful and intense that Sonia herself had trouble letting the memories come to the surface. We interviewed her for hours to get all the details to recreate the scene, trying all the time to be as careful as we could.
Here Sonia and her brother Heini, aged 8 and 10 at this point, have been hidden in a smuggler’s van and dropped off 40 km from the German-Belgian border, and instructed to walk along the railroad tracks until morning. (This was mid-June 1939, before Belgium fell under Nazi occupation.) The only other advice given to these two kids are to not say a word and hide themselves whenever they hear a train approaching. They are told to “pretend that they are dead.”
Just before sunset, we hear a deep rumble from the ground. A train is approaching. We must not be seen. Heini and I run for the ditch and slide in, pressing our bodies as close as we can into the damp dirt. Don’t move. I don’t dare look up. I close my eyelids, as if the whites of my eyes could give us away. I can feel the vibrations of the train rush through my body. After it passes, I open my eyes and peer up over the top of the ditch. We pick ourselves up, and brush the leaves and dirt off of our clothes and hands. We have a long way ahead of us.
We continue along the tracks, towards the border. Night deepens. I hear sounds through the trees—rustling leaves and then branches cracking. Is someone following us? I grab Heini’s arm. He’s heard it too. We start to run.
We run through the darkness, until we are out of breath and our legs give out. I can’t catch my breath and wonder if I am breathing too loud, if my breath will give us away.
I hold my breath and listen. The wind rustles the branches of the fir trees. An owl calls, inquisitively, then silence. Maybe we outran them, whomever they were. We continue our walk west along the tracks.
The crescent moon lowers and sets behind the trees. Don’t leave us Moon--we will be all alone in the dark. Just then I hear rumbling again on the tracks. Heini grabs my arm and we throw ourselves into the side of ditch, although it is shallower this time. I press my face into the dirt, and hold my breath.
After the train passes, I roll over carefully, open my eyes, and look up into the night sky. Even though I am too anxious to feel hungry, my tummy grumbles, loud enough for Heini to hear. He pulls out his butter sandwich and tears it in half, then half again. He hands a piece to me, and the butter, a rare treat, tastes like the best meal I’ve ever had. I try to keep the flavor on my tongue as long as I can.
“I suppose we’ve been walking for four hours. We still have a long way to go yet. I doubt we’re even a third of the way there,” whispers Heini.
We press on as fast as we can. After a few more hours, my toes blister, each step becoming painful. I curl my toes to prevent them from rubbing my shoe, but this only helps so much.
“Sonia—train!” We bolt off the tracks, jump into the ditch and wait.
After the train passes, I look up and find Polaris overhead. I see the great wagon and the kneeling giant Hercules with his club making his way across the sky, as we make our way to an uncertain future. The stars become our guide, our hope, our comfort, lighting our way in the darkness.
YH: The fortitude of the Korn family astounds me. When I was the age Sonia was here, our family went sightseeing in Washington DC, and after three hours of keeping pace walking with the grownups I blacked out! And here, the children start before sundown and cannot stop to sleep. From an editor’s perspective, it is exciting to have an author elaborate a point of interest. We wanted to know more about the journey, and thought Sonia’s readers would want to know more too. Through the editor-author dialogue she brought this to the world.
SB: I found myself thinking as I was working on this book how much these kids at such a young age experienced and witnessed. Living in a country so far removed from that sort of danger it is hard to imagine anyone having to go what these children had to go through. They were just children, and should have lived out their childhoods as normal happy children. But Sonia’s story is only one of many which not only bears witness to one of the most unspeakable times in history, but one that continues to resonate today.
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 in France, and is also frequently invited to share her Holocaust experiences as a guest speaker in high schools, universities, synagogues and churches.